Shipping and the World's Biggest Ships

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Huge Evergreen container ship like the one that got stuck in the Suez Canal

The ocean is the trading route for the planet. Over 90 percent of world trade is carried across the world’s oceans by some 90,000 marine vessels. Around 90 percent of U.S. goods arrive by ship. In 2017, the U.S. maritime transportation system carried $1.6 trillion of cargo through U.S. seaports to and from our international trading partners. The Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach account for roughly 40 percent of all U.S. imports. [Source: NOAA]

The U.S. economy is very dependent on healthy coastal and ocean resources. Fourteen percent of U.S. counties that are adjacent to the coast produce 45 percent of the nation's gross domestic product (GDP), with over three million jobs (one in 45) directly dependent on the resources of the oceans and Great Lakes.

In 2017, the ocean economy, which includes six economic sectors that depend on the ocean and Great Lakes, contributed $307 billion to the U.S. GDP and supported 3.3 million jobs. Tourism and recreation account for 73 percent of the ocean economy's total employment and 42 percent of its GDP. Offshore mineral extraction accounts for another 25 percent of the ocean economy's GDP.

Websites and Resources: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); “Introduction to Physical Oceanography” by Robert Stewart , Texas A&M University, 2008 ; Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute ; Cousteau Society ; Monterey Bay Aquarium

Biggest Ships in The World

The largest ship of any kind ever based on deadweight tonnage (DWT) was the TT Seawise Giant, an oil supertanker that was 458.46 meters (1,504 feet) long and had a DWT capacity of 564,650 tonnes and GT (gross tonnage) internal volume of 260,851 tonnes. Built between 1974 and 1979 by Sumitomo Heavy Industries in Yokosuka, Japan, the ship, when fully loaded had a displacement of 657,019 tonnes, and with a laden draft of 24.6 meters (81 feet). Because of its Beam (width) of 68.6 meters (225 feet), draft of 24.6 meters (80.7 feet) and depth of 29.8 meters (97.7 feet) it couldn’t navigate the English Channel o pass through the Suez or Panama Canals. [Source: Wikipedia]

TT Seawise Giant is no longer it service but had a long history. Originally smaller, it is was known first as the Oppama and later named the Happy Giant, Jahre Viking, Knock Nevis, and Mont. In 2013 the ship’s overall length was surpassed by 30 meters by the Floating Liquified Natural Gas installation Shell Prelude (FLNG), a monohull barge 488 meters long with 600,000 tonnes displacement.

Knock Nevis (TT Seawise Giant), the world's largest ship

The Seawise Giant's engines were powered by Ljungström turbines. She was sunk in 1988 during the Iran–Iraq War, but was later salvaged and restored to service. The vessel was converted to a floating storage and offloading unit (FSO) in 2004, moored off the coast of Qatar in the Persian Gulf at the Al Shaheen Oil Field and was ultimately broken up and scrapped in 2010.

The world’s biggest container ship is the Ever Alot, the seventh vessel in the Evergreen A-Class group of similar-sized ships, which can carry over 24,000 six-meter (20-foot) -long containers.. Built by Hudong-Zhonghua, a subsidiary of the China State Shipbuilding Corporation, and delivered to the Taiwan-based Evergreen Marine in June 2022, it is 400 meters (1312 feet) long, 61.5 meters (201.7 feet) broad and has a draft of 17 meters (55.8 feet. It is so big that that four football fields could be squeezed on her nearly half-kilometer long deck and is used mainly to carry cargo between Europe and Asia. The Ever A lot is very fuel efficient. Among its features are an innovative gas treatment system for adhering to emission limits, energy-saving devices and a bulb-less bow which decreases fuel consumption. Its gross tonnage is 236228 tonnes, and its summer deadweight is 241000 tonnes. [Source: Zahra Ahmed, Marine Insights, September 7, 2022]

The MS Ore Brasil is the world’s largest ore carrier. Built by Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering, South Korea, in 2011 for the Brazilian mining company Vale, this Very Large Ore Carrier (VLOG) has a DWT carrying capacity of 402,347 tons and is 362 meters (1,188 feet) long and 65 meters (213 feet) wide, with a draft of 23 meters. It contains seven cargo compartments with a total volume of 219,980 cubic meters and can carry 11,150 trucks worth of iron ore when fully loaded. Earlier known as the Vale Brasil, it is the first of other seven 400,000 tonnes VLOCs ordered by Vale from Daewoo and 12 ordered by China primarily to deliver ore from Brazilian mines to Asian countries along the route that goes around Cape of Good Hope of South Africa. These carriers can only enter a few specific deepwater ports in Europe, Brazil and China due to their massive size.

The Wonder Of The Seas is the largest cruise ship in the world. Owned by Royal Carribean Group, it 362 meters (1188 feet) long, has a gross tonnage of 236,858 tonnes and can comfortably carry 6988 passengers and 2300 crew members. The belongs to the Oasis Class and has been described as luxurious floating city. Layed out into neighbourhoods, the ship is designed so that it won’t feel crowded and boasts a boardwalk, the pool and sports area and central park filled with natural plants. The Royal Promenade has a choice of restaurants, lounges and bars. The youth zone for the teens and young adults has an arcade and gaming zone, and vitality fitness and spa area for relaxing. The re is a an exclusive suite neighbourhood for customers who pay enough, with each suite having access to a private outdoor deck with its own bar, restaurants, pool and lounge.

Container Ships

Largest ships of their type

Most exported goods are transported by container ships. The largest of these ships are 397-meter-long, weight 70,000 tons, are 56 meters wide, 61 meters high and 30 meters deep and can carry thousands of twenty-foot containers, enough to fill a 44-mile-long train. A patented lashing system is used secure the containers. Around a thousand refrigerators containers and their power supply can be accommodated. Although they only need a crew of 13 they often carry up to 30 people. The ships are powered by 14-cylinder diesel engines that produces 80,000 kilowatts of power and can propel the ships to speeds of 25.5 knots. The anchors weigh 29.4 tons.

The first container ship was the Ideal-X, a refurbished World War II tanker that carried 58 metal boxes from New York to Houston in 1956. The boxes were loaded onto trucks and taken to their destinations. The loading costs were $0.16 a ton compared to $5.83 a ton, the usual cost for loading loose cargo.

The development of container ships has made it possible to have factories and distribution centers almost anywhere because almost everywhere can be reached by a trucks. One of the biggest obstacles for the container industry to overcome in the United States was the gangster-supported longshoremen who didn’t want to lose their jobs.

Other obstacles that had to be addressed were creating storage facilities to handle the containers; designing cranes that could efficiently load and unload them; standardizing sizes; and creating a fleet of trucks and trains that could carry them. The first widespread use of containers came during the Vietnam War when the armed forces used containers to carry supplies from the United States to Southeast Asia.

The container ship industry was devastated by the economic crisis in 2008 and 2009. Many firms idled ships and cut their fees to attract customers. Cash flow was such as concern there was talk that a mori shipper company was destined to go under,

Harbor Pilots Paid $434,000 a Year to Risk Their Lives, Guiding to Huge Cargo Ships into Ports

Harbor pilots — who guide ships from kilometers out at sea to within inches of a port's pier — are among the highest municipal and transportation employees but they also suffer one of the highest on the job fatality rates. Business Insider reported: The average harbor pilot at the Port of Los Angeles makes $434,000 a year, but also faces a one in 20 chance of dying on the job, according to the 2021 book "Arriving Today: From Factory to Front Door” by the Wall Street Journal's Christopher Mims., which breaks down the complicated logistics of how shipment from Asia make their way U.S. buyers in a matter of days. [Source: Grace Kay, Business Insider, April 9, 2023]

Harbor pilots represent a crucial part of a shipment's journey. The average marine pilot in the U.S. makes just over $104,000 per year, according to GlassDoor. Any cargo ship looking to come into a port must pay local pilots to safely bring the ship in to dock. The role is highly risky, as the pilots face dangers of being run over by a massive cargo ship, pitched overboard in rough waters, or slammed between two boats. "Despite happening a thousand times a day all across the globe, despite myriad safety precautions, if you're a harbor pilot, doing your job can kill you," Mims writes.

The job is also incredibly high stakes and requires hyper-specialized skills. The pilot is responsible for vessels that can weigh over 200,000 tonnes and be worth over $100 million. The harbor pilot first approaches the massive skyscraper-sized cargo ship from a 55-foot long speedboat, according to Mims, who described how LA port harbor pilot Captain John Betz maneuvered the Netherlands, a Chinese-owned ship from Cosco Shipping Lines. From the speedboat, the pilot must climb a rope ladder onto the freighter — often while both boats are pitching in opposite directions. The move represents one of the most dangerous moments during the entire process. "I've been chased up the ladder by the boat," Craig Flinn, another harbor pilot, tells Mims. "The percentage of survival is minimal if you go in the water in heavy seas, even with a life vest," he said.

Once aboard the freighter, Mims explains the pilot is given a sheet detailing every little element of the ship and the obstacles it faces on its course into port. Without touching a single control on the ship, Betz directs every movement of the Netherlands via verbal commands to the crew by using his iPad, a combination of GPS and navigational beacons, the ship's on-board automated system, as well as his own judgement. The pilot also directs the crew operating the tugboats that attach to each side of the ship as it comes into the port. Once the vessel is close enough, the freighter is maneuvered predominantly using its residual momentum and the slow pull of the tugboats.

Mims calls the final steps of turning the hulking ship into its spot on the pier "the equivalent of a stunt driver parallel parking a car in a spot that's just long enough for it, after coming in at high speed, throwing over the wheel, and skidding sideways to within an inch of the curb, tires smoking." A harbor pilot's job is complete once the ship is safely tucked away in its berth. Ultimately, harbor pilots represent a little known, but crucial part of the supply-chain.

Container Ship Crane Operators Earn Up to $500,000

A massive Maesk container ship unloading

Container crane operators are also highly paid. In New York City crane operators can earn over $500,000 according to the Wall Street Journal. A crane operator there earns $82.15 an hour in base pay and benefits, according to the Engineer News-Record, a trade publication.

Describing a container ship crane operator in Portsmouth, Virginia, David J. Lynch wrote in the Washington Post: “Perched in the cab of a crane roughly 15 stories above the ground, Bobby Rascoe toggled a black joystick and zoomed out over the Elizabeth River and the East Coast’s third-largest port. The towering Chinese-made crane he is operating is the only model that can reach far enough and high enough to handle the world’s largest seagoing cargo carriers. [Source: David J. Lynch, Washington Post, June 26, 2019]

Operators like Rascoe maneuver six-ton steel claws suspended beneath their air-conditioned command posts to lift more than 20,000 shipping containers from a single vessel...Rascoe can see the dock and water by looking down between his legs. To the right, the MSC Roma, a Liberian-flagged vessel that transited the Panama Canal on its way to Virginia, is tied up at the pier. Experienced hands like Rascoe can pick up a container and put it down somewhere else about once every two minutes.

Union Container Ship Crane Operators Accused on Being Lazy

Sometimes container ship crane operators earn hundreds of thousands dollars but are accused of being lazy. Reporting Long Beach, Tori Richards wrote in the Washington Examiner: Crane operators who belong to a powerful union and earn up to $250,000 a year transferring containers from ships to trucks are worsening the supply chain crisis that threatens Christmas by goofing off on the job, frustrated truckers told the Washington Examiner. The finger-pointing at the busy Los Angeles County ports comes as scores of container ships are anchored off the California coast, waiting in some cases for weeks to unload their freight. [Source: Tori Richards, Washington Examiner, October 16, 2021]

While the reasons for the burgeoning backlog are complex, truck drivers say not everyone seems to be working together. “In 15 years of doing this job, I’ve never seen them work slower,” said Antonio, who has spent hours waiting at Los Angeles County ports for cargo to be loaded. “The crane operators take their time, like three to four hours to get just one container. You can’t say anything to them, or they will just go [help] someone else.”

The Washington Examiner spoke to six truck drivers near the Long Beach/Terminal Island entry route, and each described crane operators as lazy, prone to long lunches, and quick to retaliate against complaints. The allegations were backed up by a labor consultant who has worked on the waterfront for 40 years. None of the truckers interviewed for this story wanted to provide a last name because they fear reprisals at the ports.

The crane operators are part of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which also represents longshoremen. Veteran operators who have a set schedule make approximately $250,000 a year, while others who receive daily work assignments make $200,000, said labor consultant Jim Tessier, who represents longshoremen in disputes against the union.

CSCL Globe arriving at Felixstowe, United Kingdom

Backlog at U.S. Ports

On one day in October 2021, 59 ships were at a berth unloading cargo at one of the three Los Angeles ports. Another 88 are anchored off the coast stretching along Orange County and around Catalina Island, according to the Marine Exchange, which coordinates the ship traffic. Tori Richards wrote in the Washington Examiner: The wait time to come into port can be weeks, including one ship that has been in a holding pattern miles offshore so six weeks. The backlog, stretching 20 miles along the coast, has forced many large retailers to circumvent the bottleneck and charter their own ships so products can be on shelves before the Christmas shopping season. Reuters reported that incoming cargo is up 30%, which is also part of the problem. [Source: Tori Richards, Washington Examiner, October 16, 2021]

A secondary issue leading to the crunch is a lack of available chassis at the ports to place the cargo containers onto before they're hauled away by the truckers. While the truckers say they are making the same number of trips as previous years, for some reason, chassis are in short supply for those who don't own one, and they wait for returns to come in. In an effort to clear the logjam, President Joe Biden negotiated a 24-hour port operation. One of Long Beach’s terminals has already been working around the clock.

But the round-the-clock schedule probably won’t matter much because the crane operators work slower at night, said a trucker identified as Oscar. “Compared to all the other years, they are definitely [working] slower now. I wait at least three hours every single day,” he said. Oscar makes two trips to the ports a day to pick up shipping containers full of electronics, which are dropped off in the greater Los Angeles area — a 10-hour process.

Oscar said each terminal has two massive cranes to load cargo and he’s never seen both of them operating at once. A survey of two dozen cranes in Long Beach by the Washington Examiner found at least half of them nonoperational. However, one terminal in Long Beach has started using automated cranes, and truckers rejoice when they are summoned to pick up cargo there. It is efficient and quick. “They have to hire extra men to work the cranes and don’t want to do it,” Tessier said. “There are a lot of things [terminal operators] could do but don’t do because it costs extra money. Shows how concerned they are about their customers.”

a supertanker loading fuel offshore

Plimsoll Line and Air Gap

A commercial ship is properly loaded when the ship’s waterline equals the ship’s Plimsoll line. The Plimsoll line is a reference mark located on a ship’s hull that indicates the maximum depth to which the vessel may be safely immersed when loaded with cargo. This depth varies with a ship’s dimensions, type of cargo, time of year, and the water densities encountered in port and at sea. Once these factors have been accounted for, a ship’s captain can determine the appropriate Plimsoll line needed for the voyage.

Samuel Plimsoll (1824–1898) was a member of the British Parliament who was concerned with the loss of ships and crews due to vessel overloading. In 1876, he persuaded Parliament to pass the Unseaworthy Ships Bill, which mandated marking a ship's sides with a line that would disappear below the waterline if the ship was overloaded. The line, also known as the Plimsoll mark, is found midship on both the port and starboard hulls of cargo vessels and is still used worldwide by the shipping industry.

The NOAA Air Gap system is a tool that measures the vertical clearance between a defined reference point under a bridge and the surface of the water below.Air gap observations are collected at a high frequency and updated for the public every six minutes to account for changes in water level, vehicular loads on the bridge, air temperature, and other factors. Air gap data and surrounding tides, currents, and meteorological conditions help vessel pilots safely enter and leave many seaports. This information is critical for pilots to safely navigate a ship under a bridge, especially as U.S. seaports grow and vessels continue to increase in size.

With an air draft of 181 feet, the Gunvor Maersk container ship transits under the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in Maryland at low tide on February 21, 2021. For this transit, NOAA's air gap sensor measured the Bay Bridge clearance (the distance from the water to the underside of the bridge) at 186 feet.

Knock Nevis

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons; YouTube, NOAA

Text Sources: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); “Introduction to Physical Oceanography” by Robert Stewart , Texas A&M University, 2008 ; Wikipedia, National Geographic, Live Science, BBC, Smithsonian, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, Lonely Planet Guides and various books and other publications.

Last Updated March 2023

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