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“Even a 400-metre ship in a typhoon is at the mercy of the elements.”
She’s a big ‘un all right.
The biggest ship in the world
The Maersk ‘Triple-E’ container ship is the biggest vessel in the world. But what goes into building the ultimate engine of commerce?
Big, they say, is beautiful. Whether you apply that principle to cargo ships depends how much you like winches, grease stains and enormous, smoke-belching funnels. But, beautiful or not, the Maersk Mc-Kinney Møller is a landmark in engineering.
A quarter-of-a-mile long, 195ft wide — equivalent to an eight-lane motorway — and 240ft high, the vessel, which began its maiden voyage earlier this month, is the biggest ship in the world.
Its sole purpose is to plough the trade route between Asia and Europe, bringing us millions of products manufactured in China, Malaysia and Korea, before returning, rather lighter, with exports from the West.
No ship has ever been able to carry so many goods in one journey; the Mc-Kinney Møller has room for 18,000 containers, each of them 20ft long, 8ft wide and 8ft high. That’s enough space for 36,000 cars or 111 million pairs of trainers. But Maersk, the ship’s Danish owner, will not just benefit from the economies of scale that spring from operating such a large vessel; it will also save money on petrol.
The ship has been designed to sail at an average of only 16 knots – a system known as “super slow steaming” – which is expected to save the company around £750,000 in fuel on a typical journey between Shanghai and Rotterdam.
It will still emit egregious amounts of pollution – cargo ships use a form of high-sulphur fuel, banned on land, that has been linked to cancer, heart disease and coastal erosion.
But, instead of burning 214 tons a day, the Mc-Kinney Møller will burn a slightly less-damaging 150 tons, which Maersk executives insist is a step in the right direction. The slow speed also reduces carbon dioxide emissions.
Over the next two years, Maersk is overseeing the construction of another 19 similar vessels, forming a class of ship it calls “Triple-E” dedicated to the Asia-Europe route.
The captain of the third Triple-E will be David Johnstone, from Wishaw, in Lanarkshire, a Harley-Davidson fanatic who has been skippering container ships for 24 years.
On the day I spoke to him he had just returned from Belfast where he’d visited an exhibition about another big ship – the Titanic.
Was that necessarily the best preparation for his new job?
Johnstone insisted it was. “The Titanic has fascinated me for 40-odd years. I’ve got books on the Titanic, I’ve got a 3ft print of the Titanic on my wall. I went to the exhibition with 40 other bikers and they thought it was hilarious to get me to pose in the souvenir shop with a captain’s hat.
“But, when it came to the exhibition itself, I went round on my own. The story reminds you that no ship is impregnable. Even a 400-metre ship in a typhoon is at the mercy of the elements.”