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How Big Have Vessels Gotten in Ocean Shipping’s “Supersized” Era?

Apr 25, 2017 1:15:48 AM / by Khurram Kalim

A few weeks ago, Maersk added the Madrid Maersk to its cargo shipping fleet. News of fleet expansion from one of the world’s biggest carriers might hardly be news on any other day, but what made the transaction so impressive is that the boxship currently sails as the largest container vessel in the world. Maersk is set to add 10 more similarly sized vessels by next year.

The Madrid Maersk is big. The eye test tells you as much. But just how big is the vessel exactly? And how does it compare to the gargantuan container ships crisscrossing the globe already?


What Kind of Size Counts?

When it comes to determining container vessel size, the unit of measurement with the most relevance is TEU. TEU, the abbreviation of Twenty-foot Equivalent Unit, is the measuring stick for cargo capacity. A vessel’s capacity rates in TEUs is a reference to approximately how many 20 foot containers that vessel can hold, standardized to a 20 foot length, an eight foot width and approximately an eight and a half foot height. While this isn’t the only number that matters (more on this below), capacity in containers is a good barometer of just how big your vessel is; the more TEUs it can hold, the bigger it is.

READ MORE: Can It “Fit Into a Container”? 3 PRO TIPs to Make Sure It Does 

What’s in a Name?

Vessels also need to fit the dimensions of various ports, canals and passages around the world. 

Where accommodating sizes are concerned, TEUs aren’t the end-all measurement. To pass through a canal, a vessel needs to adhere to the length, width and depth maximums the canal allows. This has led to shorthand classifications of different types of container vessels that reference the passage (or similarly-sized ports) in which they can fit. For our purposes, we’ll keep focused on TEU.

For example, the series of Panamax-sized vessels are named after the maximum allowable measurements for usage of the Panama Canal. In terms of TEU, a Panamax container ship generally maxes out at about 5,000 TEUs.

The names of some vessel-types also give us an idea of the history of a given port. The Panama categories, for example, now include names like Post-Panamax (approx. 10,000 TEUs max) and New Panamax (approx. 14,500 TEUs max), which signal expansions in the dimensions of the Panama Canal that supersede the original build. By some estimates, 90% of non-bulk cargo travels over ocean today, and the world’s passage bodies have had to be adjusted to keep up with the traffic.

So how big is the Madrid Maersk?

In terms of TEUs, the Madrid Maersk has an estimated capacity of roughly 20,500 containers. It, along with a few predecessors, has unofficially created a new upper-echelon of size class: the Megamax vessel, whose capacity is so far above the minimum designator of the previous highest classification, the Ultra Large Container Vessel (ULCV), that it necessitates its own category.

Within the Maersk family, the Madrid Maersk isn’t significantly longer than the fleet’s previous top vessel, the Emma Maersk and it’s siblings, with most estimates putting it within two to three meters in length. But it dwarfs the maximum capacity of its sister ship by roughly 5,000 TEUs.

The Madrid Maersk is just over 400 yards long, and if stood up on its stern, it would be the third-tallest structure in New York City.

  • It measures approximately 65 yards across. In this past NFL season, only 22 passes traveled farther.
  • It could carry the weight of over 30,000 adult African Elephants.
  • It’s estimated container volume could hold nearly 210 million gallons of water.

And the craziest thing about Maersk’s mega vessel? It won’t be the largest capacity vessel for much longer. That there is the OOCL Hong Kong, which can carry about 500 more TEUs than its Maersk counterpart and is already test sailing. One can only wonder how long the new biggest ship in the logistics pond will reign. Our guess is, in ocean shipping’s supersized era, an even bigger vessel already looms on the horizon.


Topics: Logistics News, Container Shipping, Vessels

Written by Khurram Kalim

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