Reach as important as depth when handling the ultras
Getting a giant container ship alongside is just half the job. The loading process is equally important.
When container shipping is raised at any gathering of industry people, the issue of overcapacity is usually the number one topic.
The amount of available container capacity is a big deal, of course, and the glut in supply is depressing freight rates on the major east-west trades.
A major contributor to the oversupply, or to the future oversupply, comes in the form of ultra large ships or 10,000 TEUs and up. Around 160 of these vessels are on order, with 111 ships above 7,500 TEUs.
This invariably leads a discussion on shipping towards channel and berth depth, as the giant ships will need more than 50 feet of water. In the US, this is a major problem and ports on both sides of the continent are trying to obtain funding to dredge their way clear by the time the Panama Canal expansion project is completed in 2014.
But there is another equally pressing topic to discuss – or even better, to address – by ports around the world. Deepening channels and berths is only the first step towards accommodating the ultra large container ships. Step two is erecting the crane equipment capable of extending its reach 23 containers wide.
Without the huge cranes in place, the larger vessels will not be able to be turned around quickly. Slow steaming may keep the ships at sea for longer, but having the ship overstaying its welcome will play havoc with schedules.
As a crane maker put it recently, the ships cost US$200 million each and that is a lot of money to have sitting around being slowly offloaded.
Cargo volumes are down at the moment so now is the time for the ports in Asia to boost investment in the 23-wide crane equipment. And not just the big hub ports, either. Even the smaller ports should be looking at upgrading their cranes because when a 10,000-plus TEU ships hits a string it can send ships cascading down. They will serve as feeders, and many are above 7,500 TEUs.
According to the crane maker, of the 4,900 STS cranes in service last year, only 1,000 were capable of reaching past 22 containers. It’s no surprise that half of them are in Asia.
But some urgent investment is required, and as the ultra large ships begin floating into service, the topic of conversation around the shipping table will quickly shift from the ships to the shore.