In the movie Super Size Me, a film-maker investigated what would happen to him if he ate nothing but fast food for a month, consuming a ‘super-sized’ meal every time. A casual glance at industry headlines over recent years would reflect the fact that shipping is involved in its own super sizing experiment, with news of larger and larger ‘megaships’ hitting the water in many sectors.
The average vessel size in the world cargo fleet covered by Shipping Intelligence Weekly has increased from 17,470 dwt at the start of 2000 to 28,572 dwt today. Whilst broad ship size ranges are often well established, owners still search for economies of scale, and there can be a tendency for ‘size creep’ with designs increasing incrementally in capacity over time. But in many sectors there have been landmark steps forward to new larger vessel sizes, such as the containerships up to 18,000 TEU in size being delivered today. Demolition of older ships following the downturn has also supported upsizing. In 2013, the average size of a delivered ship was 53,235 dwt, whilst the average size of a unit demolished was 44,238 dwt.
Bigger Than Mac
But upsizing isn’t universal, and the graph illustrates the trends in the three main sectors. The tanker fleet has hardly upsized at all. The average size at the start of 2000 was 85,323 dwt, and today that stands at 86,248 dwt. However, the containership fleet has seen significant upsizing as operators have searched for lower unit costs. In 2000 the average size of a boxship was 24,716 dwt and today that figure is up 71% to 42,496 dwt. Consistent ordering of larger ships has driven this trend, and in TEU terms the average size has risen even more rapidly, by 97% from 1701 TEU to 3367 TEU. The size of the largest ship in the fleet has increased from 9,600 TEU to 18,270 TEU. That’s a long way from the 58 containers loaded onto Malcolm McLean’s Ideal-X which undertook the first container voyage in 1956.
Interestingly, the bulkcarrier upsizing trend has been just as strong. The average bulker size has increased from 50,235 dwt in 2000 to 72,640 dwt today, helped by heavy Capesize deliveries, the introduction of VLOCs, and upsizing into the Supramax (and now Ultramax) and Kamsarmax size ranges. Growth in the average size of 44% is lower than in the container sector, but equivalent to an average rise of 1,590 dwt pa compared to 1,262 dwt for box-ships.
So, the shipping industry has had its own bout of supersizing. Yet, although some sectors have definitely ‘gone large’ it hasn’t been universal. In previous eras, upsizing has often found a limit, but today there’s no clear end to the trend yet. The average vessel on order is currently a whopper of 64,370 dwt. With the right amount of seaborne trade, there will hopefully be enough to feed everyone, but upsizing creates additional capacity and shipowners will be hoping they don’t get left with a nasty bout of indigestion.