Maersk's Newbuilds Won't Fit New Panama Canal

container ship
file photo: container ship under way in Asia

Published Aug 16, 2015 8:44 PM by Wendy Laursen

Last week Maersk announced the signing of a $1.1 billion newbuilding contract for nine vessels with a 14,000 TEU capacity. 

The vessels are designed for flexibility, not a single trade, but they may not be as flexible as some might expect, says Dirk Visser, Senior Shipping Consultant at consultants Dynamar B.V. of the Netherlands.

Maersk is strengthening its fleet with hull designs that can be deployed on East-West or North-South trades without impacting on fuel consumption. The reasoning is that while China remains the global manufacturing center, competitors like Mexico, Turkey and others are growing. Maersk is therefore preparing for new trade patterns, the company said in a statement.

“When I first saw the order in combination with Maersk’s comments, I assumed that the dimensions of these nine 14,000 TEU ships would allow them to pass through the new Panama Canal locks - meaning that they should have a maximum breadth of 49 meters (48.77 meters, to be precise,” says Visser.

This would mean that, with these nine ships, Maersk Line could operate a Far East-US East Coast all-water via the new Panama service. Other options via the enlarged Panama Canal could be: U.S. East Coast-West Coast South America or Europe-West Coast South America.  

“Upon signing the order, only the length of these nine 14,000 TEU container ships was stated: 353 meters, but meanwhile it has been confirmed that their breadth will be 53.3 meters,” says Visser. “Hence, they will actually be too large to sail via Panama and thus, perhaps, be less flexible than Maersk Line would have hoped.”

Nonetheless, there will remain many other options where Panama doesn’t come at play, says Visser, such as the Far East, Europe or U.S. East Coast-East Coast South America, Far East-South Africa or Far East-Middle East.

Although some think that the Panama Canal Authority would be considering an upwards revision of the maximum allowed vessel-breadth (physically, the lock chambers have a width of 54 meters), that would not help these 14,000 TEU ships, says Visser. “Moreover, as there must be room in the locks for the tugboats guiding the mainline vessels in and out, we do not expect any spectacular upwards revision, if any at all.”

Last June CMA CGM ordered six 14,000 TEU ships with a breadth of 48.2 meters, which will therefore effectively be NewPanamax. It is assumed that the extra capacity versus a 13,200 TEU NewPanamax ship will come from an extra deck tier for empty containers. Therefore, the 14,000 TEU CMA CGM ships will be more flexible than those of Maersk, says Visser.

Also, NewPanamax ships (such as the CMA CGM 14,000 TEU units) require 19-wide Ship-to-shore terminal gantry cranes. For Maersk’s new ships that will be gantries capable of handling 21 boxes across deck. However, Visser says that such cranes are not common in southern hemisphere ports-terminals, another limit to the flexibility of the Maersk vessels.