The Ocean Freight Industry and its Massive Ships

Supply chain challenges have dominated news stories during the second half of 2021.  These problems have been blamed on the global pandemic, staff shortages at ports, logistical failures, manufacturing delays, shortages of cargo containers, and more.

The enormity of the ocean freight transport industry is not often discussed or reported on, yet global economies rely on ocean freight for a significant portion of trade goods they import and export.  Ocean freight, in terms of total weight or tonnage, accounts for nearly 90% of world trade.

MSC Regulus container ship Trinity Terminal, Port of Felixstowe, Suffolk, England, UK. Photo: Geography Photos/UIG

The ocean freight industry relies on the abilities of ports to efficiently unload cargo from freighters to their docks and then onwards to their intended destinations.  Cargo is often shipped in containers, which have a standard size of 20 feet in length.

Ports measure their activity on how many containers they process.  For example, the largest port in the world, China’s Port of Shanghai, processes more than 42 million TEU’s annually.  TEU’s (Twenty-foot Equivalent Units) are used to determine cargo and merchandise capacities, selecting container types for specific shipments, and for calculating port activity.

Singapore. Elevated view of the Pasir Panjang Container Terminal. Photo: Ken Welsh/UCG/UIG

Fifteen of the busiest twenty ports in the world are located in Asia, and nine of those are in China.  The locations of these massive ports underscore the manufacturing dominance of many Asian countries.

A container ship unloading at the port of Felixstowe. Photo: Dibs McCallum/Loop Images/UIG

These ports have increasingly needed to improve their efficiencies and upgrade equipment and technologies in order to keep pace with the ever-increasing size of the massive containerships.  The largest containership currently roaming the world’s seas is the HMM Algeciras which is 399.9 meters in length (1,312 feet) and has a 24,000 TEU capacity.  In comparison, the largest containership at the beginning of the 21st century was the Sovereign class of ship, featuring a capacity of 8,000 TEU’s.

Port of Southampton, England, UK. A container carrier ship approaching the port of Southampton. Photo: Peter Titmuss/UCG/UIG

View along the Suez Canal in Egypt, from the bridge of a container ship, 2006. Photo: Universal History Archive/UIG

The increasing size of containerships not only affects ports but also major shipping waterways such as the Panama Canal and the Suez Canal.  The blockage of the Suez Canal during March, 2021 was caused by the grounding of the Ever Given, a 20,000 TEU container ship.

Courier Delivery Person during Covid 19. Photo: Peter Titmuss/UCG/UIG

With so much of the world’s goods shipped via containerships, there’s a good chance some of your holiday presents, the car you drive, and even the ingredients in your next meal made their way to you thanks to the ocean freight industry.

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