The ebbs and flows of ULCVs

MarineTraffic data plots the trends for increasing large containerships

By Penny Thomas

July 8, 2021

EverGiven_MarineTraffic_Container ships

Photo Credit: Dennis Mortimer,

Anyone working in the maritime industry is well versed in the strategic importance of the Suez and Panama canal routes and the direct influence that shipping has on 21st century living. It is largely invisible, however, to those outside of the industry and does little to encourage interest from its end users.


Source: MarineTraffic data

Incidents like the March grounding of the Ever Given on the Suez Canal thrust shipping into the spotlight offering a rare opportunity for all to marvel at the size of the vessel, and raise awareness of the importance of shipping as the deliverer of global trade.

With a 20,124 teu capacity, 399,94m length and 58.8m beam, Ever Given falls into the ultra large containership (ULCV) category - with a capacity of 20,000 teu or more. But Ever Given is not the biggest vessel to have navigated the Suez Canal. That accolade goes to the 23,756 teu MSC Gulsun, which transited for the first time in 2019 when it owned the title of the world’s largest containership. 

Since then slightly bigger vessels have been built and now the largest ULCV is the 2020-delivered 23,964 teu, HMM Algeciras.

Data from MarineTraffic lineates the trend in increasingly big containerships with the largest increment since the advent of containerisation seen in 2006 when the 15,550 teu Emma Maersk arrived on the scene. The previous year, 2005, the largest ship to be delivered was 9,200 teu, with Emma representing an increased carrying capacity of 59%.


Source: MarineTraffic data

Emma was one of eight E-class ships built for Maersk, which reigned as the largest ships for the next six years. Fast forward 15 years and the E-class vessels’ capacity are insufficient to be considered amongst the ULCV behemoths.

Since the Emma Maersk, increases in size have been more modest. MarineTraffic data shows that after delivery of Emma, vessel size year on year either plateaued or reduced, and picked up again in earnest in 2012, when a 16,020 teu vessel was delivered, followed by a 18,270 teu vessel in 2013. For the next five years, increase in size was rarely more than 1,000 teu, until 2019 when the HMM Algeciras was introduced to the world fleet. 

But nonetheless, the overall trend shows an upward tradgeory, and industry commentators are split as to whether such big vessels represent increased safety, logistics and infrastructure challenges. Bigger ships are more difficult to manoeuvre than their smaller relatives making navigation of busy sea lanes and waterways (such as the canal) more hazardous.

The surface area of a containership’s profile can act like a steel sail limiting its manoeuvrability in certain wind conditions as well as increasing its potential to be blown off course.

The financial consequences are also considerable and the six-day Suez Canal blockage put the spotlight on the consequences of blocking a significant trade route. Shipping line major Maersk Line said in a May statement that 50 of its vessels had been impacted, resulting in a cascade effect for its other vessels. “If one vessel is one week delayed and one is on time – they will be sailing in parallel on the same service – causing the ripple effects to start...

“It also impacts the available capacity to move cargo. To recover approximately a week’s delay, vessels must either call [at] fewer ports, consolidate port calls, turn back before end rotations OR slide the entire service – meaning that all the coming vessels will be delayed.”

In April, industry commentator Pablo Rodas-Martini asked on LinkedIn: “Will the Suez Canal blockage stop newbuilds´ gigantism, or will the trend continue with even bigger vessels in the Trans-Pacific trade?” The question garnered some 357 responses with 89% believing that containerships will continue to get bigger. Comments from the poll highlighted the advantages of economies of scale the vessels offered, whilst others looked to the infrastructure provider - in this case the Suez Canal Authority - to reduce the risk of a repeat blockage.

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The infrastructure debate for such vessels is not limited to canals. Port infrastructure - both sea and land side - is impacted if a port authority wishes to remain relevant to these big ships. Investments might include bigger container cranes, more landside space, and more dredging to create deeper berths, port approaches and turning circles.

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Port of Barcelona’s deputy general manager, Santiago Garcia-Milà, said at a June International Association of Ports and Harbors (IAPH) conference that “the scale of funding that is needed to expand physical infrastructure is in a different league to shipping, also requiring complex public-private partnerships.” At the same event, Captain Subramaniam, general manager of Port Klang Authority agreed, stating, “We cannot overlook the fact that the lead time for building new port infrastructure is much more complex and costly – and therefore takes much longer – than that of building a new ship.”

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Capt. Subra, who is the new president of IAPH, taking over from Garcia-Milà, has seen a career both at sea and on shore and believes that shipowners do not always realise these challenges when they are making their next ship orders.

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Penny Thomas

Penny Thomas

Penny Thomas is Account Manager at London based public relations agency, Navigate PR

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