I WRITE from the pilot’s cabin of one of the world’s largest container ships, the Eleonora Maersk, moving almost imperceptibly through the South China Sea off the Vietnamese coast. Eight storeys up from the deck, my windows just about clear the top of the thousands of containers that are stacked in 22 rows across the vessel. This allows me a view to the ship’s forward navigation mast, a full 250 or so metres away. But the rain is coming in now, and it will soon disappear from sight.
The accommodation section, and above it the bridge, is a bit aft of amidships, so the stern is another 150 metres or so behind me. Or, put another way, the whole is about four football pitches long and half of one wide. Or again: about two-fifths the height of Scafell Pike, the highest peak in England. This is “economy of scale” made steel…and the reason why the retailer Primark will be able to sell me a Chinese-made T-shirt for just a pound or two on my local high-street in Britain, just inside a month.
The vessel is specifically designed to ply the world’s most important trade route, the Asia-Europe run: this is now (euro-area debt crisis notwithstanding) the main artery of globalisation. Having started its homeward-bound voyage in South Korea and having picked up most of its cargo in Shanghai, the Eleonora is due to dock in Rotterdam in a couple weeks’ time. I joined the vessel on October 26th at the container terminal of Yantian, the port of Shenzhen, just inside mainland China north of Hong Kong. I will disembark on October 30th when we reach another massive port, on the southern tip of Malaysia, just north of Singapore. Even if I wanted to stay on board for the next leg, non-stop to Europe, I wouldn’t get very far. As was explained to me in “the citadel”, a secure room in the bowels of the ship where everyone has to gather in the event of a boarding by pirates, no guests or even family are allowed on Maersk vessels past Sri Lanka, because of the threat from Somalia. In truth however, this ship is just too big (and fast) for pirates to grapple with.
So, what are we carrying? This boat will be fully loaded after Malaysia, with about 7,500 containers (or 100,000 tonnes) of European Christmas presents, mostly—and a New Year treat. For we must be shipping much of the continent’s New Year celebrations as well: 1,850 tonnes of fireworks, including 30 tonnes of gunpowder, probably from Hunan province, where most of these things are made. Oh, and about 28 containers (290 tonnes’ worth) of plastic cigarette-lighters, destined for the Danes, Swedes and Poles.
To make it worth one’s while to ship cigarette-lighters and sparklers most of the way round the world, it is best, of course, to have a ship as big as the Eleonora Maersk. Only with such behemoths can shippers and retailers achieve the economies of scale that are necessary to make the Asia-Europe trade pay. Maersk lines, the world’s biggest container-shipping company, has eight such E-Class ships—and has just ordered 20 even (slightly) bigger ships from Korean yards. High oil prices are now forcing all the main container-shipping firms to order ever bigger ships. They might be awesomely expensive (Maersk’s new ones will cost almost $200m each), but with fuel costs making up such a large part of their bills, all the shipping lines are looking to reduce the cost per mile per container on the Asia-Europe run. The only feasible way to do that is pile more containers on one ship.
So almost everything about the Eleonora, which was built in the mid-2000s, is quite simply—The Biggest in the World, Ever. It is not just the biggest kind of container ship, but the biggest ship of any sort in service. To move its load through the water, it boasts the largest combustion engine ever built—generating horse power equivalent to 1,000 family-sized cars. The 14-cylinder engine turns the longest propeller shaft (130 metres) ever built, at the end of which is the largest propeller, weighing in at 130 tonnes. Yet so efficient is the engine, says the Danish chief engineer, that cruising at an average of 17 knots the ship consumes just 3 grams of fuel per tonne per nautical mile—which certainly sounds low. This sort of calculation, above all, makes a sophisticated laptop or iPad made in China affordable in Copenhagen.
Alarmingly, at least for a container-ship neophyte like myself, the world’s biggest ship seems to have a crew of only 19. But that’s a few too few, surely? In fact, the Danish captain explains that, strictly speaking, the boat is designed to be run by just 13 people; but he likes to have some more on board, for maintenance and repairs…Sensible chap. Together with some cadets, that brings the full complement to a gangway-shoving 24.
But then the ship is so automated that the captain appears to exercise full mastery over everything in sight with only the slightest touch to a half-ball, the size of one hand’s palm, which protrudes from a control panel. I can see all the traditional signalling flags neatly stowed on shelves on the bridge—so neatly, in fact, that I suspect they might never have been used, together with the sextant, the flares.
Sunday, 30 October 2011
Globalisation: Extreme shipping | The Economist
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