Size matters in the world of shipping

Floris Steenkamp

Namport is currently conducting a study to look at ways to safely navigate mega-container ships through the main shipping channel of the port of Walvis Bay under any weather scenario. The ports authority expects answers by September, said Port Engineer Elzevir Gelderbloem.

Container ships larger than 5 000 TEU’s can only safely enter the port of Walvis Bay weather permitting. The main shipping channel is not wide enough for these ships to safely pass in bad weather and sea conditions.
Note to the reader: TEU is the abbreviation for “twenty foot equivalent unit” which represents the standard 20 foot ship-ping container.
A twenty foot shipping container equals one TEU. A 5 000 TEU container ship can thus carry 5 000 20 foot containers.
Apart from the safety aspect, it also place sailing schedules at risk. Operators of these large container ships cannot risk either being caught up alongside in unexpected unfavourable weather conditions. Neither can these ships wait out at sea for suitable weather windows.
The study became crucial for Namport, as the trend is developing for larger container ships. It means smaller fleets to maintain and improved operational capacity.
When Namport planned the container terminal on reclaimed land more than a decade ago, consensus was that container vessels in the 5 000 TEU range would be around as the main workhorses till at least 2025. In the last two years the trend changed dramatically.
Container lines have started to sell off these smaller vessels and the ships between 8 000 TEU’s and 12 000 TEU’s.
For Namport this can develop in a sticky situation: if the new normal is 8 000 TEU’s for this part of the world, the need for safe passage for these larger ships through the main channel is crucial. It is further crucial as the new container terminal on reclaimed land is geared for ships of up to 9 200 TEU’s and the need for these ships to call at Walvis Bay will come sooner or later.
Many argue Namport must undertake a dredge project to widen the channel, but according to Port Engineer Elzevir Gelderbloem this needs to make business sense and for that to happen the large shipping lines must commit to include Walvis Bay on their schedules consistently and they must bring additional volumes to walvis bay in order to pay for a widened channel.
“A dredge project of this magnitude can cost in excess of N$1 billion. Any financier that considers to fund such a dredge project to widen the channel will require a sound business case to do so. Unfortunately we don’t have that business case now”, he explained. Hence the need for the study to explore ways to navigate these mega ships safely in the channel with its existing dimensions.
So how did Namport come to the point where the container terminal on reclaimed land can handle mega ships of up to 9 200 TEU’s, but the main channel is actually only geared for ships up to 5 000 TEU’s?
When Namport planned the container terminal on reclaimed land more than a decade ago, the global consensus was that for this part of the world the 5 000 TEU container ship would remain the general workhorse till at least 2025. As part of the new container terminal project Namport then deepened the channel from 12.8m to 14.4m deep in 2011, in order to accommodate the 5000 TEU container vessel in its channel.
This trend abruptly changed in the past three years. Container lines are switching to larger, modern container ships to reduce fleet sizes and achieve optimal operational efficiency. This trend puts the smaller container ships at risk and also ports at risk which cannot make the transition to accommodate the bigger ships without possibly forking out another NAD 1 billion to widen the current channel.

Pictured – The largest container ship on the planet

The world’s biggest container vessel today is the CSL/CL Oscar belonging to China Container lines. The vessel has a capacity to carry 19 000 standard shipping containers (19 000 TEU). The vessel is a few millimeters from 400 m long and 58,73 m wide. (A mega container ship with a capacity of 22 000 TEU is currently in the planning).
The shipping container was first introduced in the late 1950’s and the world’s first purpose-built overseas container ship, Encounter Bay, made its debut in 1968 (pictured below).
The import- and export economies in Southern Africa which is served through the port of Walvis Bay now dictates container vessels in the range 5 000 TEU. However, a changing trend worldwide is to switch to container vessels in the range 8 000 to 12 000 TEU and could sound the death knell for the smaller container ship well before 2025. (See related article in today’s edition)

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