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Why container ships probably won’t get bigger

When the Ever Ace, one of the world’s largest container ships, left the port of Yantian on August 14 last year and made a spectacular maneuver in the South China Sea, she had embarked on a record-breaking voyage.

To date, no other ship has carried such a large amount of shipping containers – the equivalent of 21,710 20 ft (6 m) containers. The 399.9m-long (1,320ft) and 61.5m-wide (203ft) vessel is a true behemoth, but there are dozens of container ships of a similar size sailing today. Many more are currently under construction. Only two of them will stand as tall as the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

If you take a look at a list of the largest container ships in the world, you will soon see that they are all 400 meters (1,320 ft) in length or less and about 60 meters (200 ft) wide. This is more or less the upper limit for these ships today. There are a number of surprising reasons – why – and also why you’re unlikely to see any container ship bigger than this, probably ever. But what are they?

There are approximately 5,500 container ships globally and together they are capable of carrying the equivalent of 25 million TEU, or approximately 25 million 20 ft (6 m) containers. It’s like they were all fully loaded in an instant.

As George Griffiths, editor of global container markets at S&P Global Platts points out, the global order book for new container ships will increase total mass capacity by 25% in just a few years.

“We’re building a lot more ultra-large container ships,” he says. “The proportion of new ships that are carrying more than 14,000 containers is staggering.”

In the last decade alone, the average capacity of a container ship has dropped from less than 3,000 TEU to about 4,500 TEU. And there are currently more than 50 ships with a capacity of 21,000 TEU or more. Practically all these were built in the last five years.

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