Spin-Offs from Future Twin Channels at the Suez Canal

Suez Canal

Published Feb 15, 2020 6:05 PM by Harry Valentine

The Suez Canal has evolved into the world’s most important man-made navigation passage. Despite recent expansion, further canal expansion is expected over the next decade. The sailing draft of ships would likely increase from 20 meters (66 feet) to 21.3 meters (70 feet) along parallel channels each measuring 315-meters (1,033 feet) in width along with increased sailing beam, ship length and deadweight tonnage that could likely transit oil tankers.


Prior to 1860 and courtesy of development of steam powered railways, a British company built a railway line in Egypt to connect the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea, to reduce travel time between the Europe and the East Indies. While initially very successful, the railway became a victim of its own success by being unable to provide the needed service for an expanding market. As a result, a French financier raised capital to dig a navigation canal between the Red Sea and Mediterranean Sea. The Suez Canal opened for navigation in November 1869.

Over the decades that followed, the Suez Canal eventually lost business opportunity as ship sizes increased to beyond the canal capability. While the largest oil tanker ships built during the 1960’s and 1970’s era could sail through the canal when empty, fully laden oil tankers sailing from Red Sea and Persian Gulf oil terminals to Gulf of Mexico oil terminal had to sail via Cape Town, South Africa. The largest container ships of almost 24,000 TEUs easily navigate the present expanded canal and within the next decade, the canal would likely transit container ships of 30,000 to 35,000 TEUs.

Oil Transport

An oil tanker that sails from a Red Sea oil terminal via Cape Town to a Gulf of Mexico oil terminal covers an additional 60 percent of distance than if the fully laden ship could sail via the Suez Canal. Within the next decade and courtesy of future expansion of the Suez Canal and technological innovation, fully-laden large oil tankers would likely sail through the canal, reducing voyage duration by 15 days to Gulf of Mexico. Vessel productivity would increase in that within a 12-month period, it could carry at least two additional ship loads of oil.

The future possibility of large, fully laden oil tankers sailing via the Suez Canal has implications for Canada, where vehement environmental opposition scuttled the Canada East oil pipeline that was intended to carry oil from Western Canada to a refinery located in Canada’s Atlantic region. Some of that oil is presently carried at high cost using railway transportation. Within a decade, large oil tankers sailing via the Suez Canal could carry competitively priced Middle Eastern oil to the Eastern Canadian oil refinery and at lower transportation cost per 100 barrels than railway transportation across Canada.

Minimal Bow Wave

The width of each of the future twin channels would allow for development of a super-wide twin-hull technology with forward propellers that would attach to oversize vessels arriving at Suez Canal north and south entrances. When attached to a ship, forward propellers would push fast flowing streams of water rearward through channels formed between the ship hull and the technology twin hulls. It would allow very large ships such as fully laden oil tankers and super-size container ships to sail forward through each navigation channel, with minimal bow wave and minimal wave action reaching the shoreline.

The self-propelled technology would sail the length of the canal. Ship companies would need to make advance arrangements for the technology to meet a super-size ship at an entrance to the Suez Canal. Either a private company or the Suez Canal Authority could own and operate the technology. Given the intended 315 meters width of each channel, the twin hulls of the wave minimizing technology could be spaced 120 meters apart. Suez Canal Authority would need to decide on the future of such technology operating at the canal and the fee charged to customers.

Container Transport

Expanding the present day vessel, a future 1,600-foot length mega-sized container ship would carry one additional level of containers below ship water line, two to four additional container widths (68-meters) with an additional two to four levels above deck. A forward control bridge located above the bow would restrict overall ship height to that of the top level of containers and sail below the 70-meter clearance under the bridge across the Suez Canal. Crew members may walk between bow and stern through an interconnecting enclosed passage built deep inside the ship’s hull or outside along the upper side of the hull. 

The development of larger container ships would prompt several major Asian and European ports and transshipment terminals to dredge port areas to berth deeper draft vessels. Future cranes would need to service higher and wider vessels. A future Suez Canal would face three months of competition, the result of a warmer Arctic region where within a decade, mega-size container ships would likely be able to sail into the Beaufort Sea, through Prince of Wales Strait, Barrow Strait and Davis Strait to Western Mediterranean transshipment terminals and possibly even an eastern Canadian terminal.

Increased Height

The 70-meter air draft along the Suez Canal will likely serve the international ship transportation industry over the next decade and beyond. At the present day, the highest bridge piers extend over 300 meters (1,000-feet) in height. At some future time and applying the precedent of raising the Bayonne Bridge at the entrance to the Port of Newark, there would be scope to increase the air draft along the Suez Canal should the need arise and involving several future mega-size ships sailing per week through the canal twin channels. 

Combining present bridge height with deeper and wider navigation channels, future container ships of 18.5-meter water draft and 63-meter height above water (81.5-meter total height) would be able to sail fully laden along the Suez Canal. Sailing while partly laden would require considerable ballast to conform to required air draft restrictions. Should it become technically possible within the next 20 years to design and build container ships of 50,000 TEUs capacity and that conforms to future Suez Canal navigation depth and channel width requirements, then it may be time to raise the bridge level across the Suez Canal.   

Transportation Costs

When larger ships began carrying containers on the trans-Pacific Asia – North American service, railways carried containers across North America from Pacific ports to eastern destinations, at high costs. Concurrently, older generation Panamax ships carried comparatively small numbers of containers per voyage from Asia via the Panama Canal to east coast North American ports, at very competitive transportation costs per container. The reduction in transportation costs prompted the redevelopment of the Panama Canal to transit larger ships that presently arrive at America’s east coast ports, serving a market segment that seeks to save on expenses.

When plans were first formulated to develop a North American Atlantic Coast container transshipment terminal, the largest Suez-max container ships carried some 50 percent more containers than new-Panamax ships, with small difference in operating costs per ship. The largest container ships presently entering service carry double the number of containers, with potential for future Suez-max container ships to potentially each carry 2.5 to three times the number of containers to Western Mediterranean transshipment ports and at very low transportation cost per container and especially if a three-month passage via the shorter route via the Arctic becomes available.

Container Transshipment

While Shanghai is the world’s busiest container port, the combination of the nearby ports of Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Yantian and Hong Kong process more containers than Shanghai. The prospect of larger ships carrying increased future international trade translates to the possibility of larger and possibly additional transshipment ports, including the possibility of such a port along the North American east coast. Several American east coast ports have been upgrade to berth and provide service to ships of 12,000 to 18,000-TEUs, with peak retail related containers arriving during the latter portion of the year. 

Perhaps within a decade, a trans-Arctic sailing route would likely allow for three months of navigation and compete with future Suez Canal for East Asian – Western European and East Asian – east coast North American container traffic. Containers carried via the Arctic would incur lower transportation costs than carried via the Panama Canal aboard smaller vessels. The introduction of mega-size (30,000-TEUs and bigger) ships would enhance prospects for container transshipment in the northeastern region of North America, to interline with new-Panamax ships sailing to east coast ports such as Newark, Norfolk, Charleston, Savannah and Jacksonville.

Future Trade

American political disruption of future international trade will likely reduce sailing frequency of new-Panamax ships sailing the East Asia – East coast America service. To reduce transportation costs for containers arriving at America’s east coast, future super-ships sailing from Asia to Western Mediterranean terminals would carry containers to be transferred to ships sailing to east coast American ports. Alternatively, a super ship may carry containers destined for all American east coast ports from a main Asian port to a North American east coast transshipment terminal, to be transferred to smaller ships that sail short distances along the American east coast.

If the American administration allows international trade to develop without political disruption, the combined number of lower-priority containers sailing from Asia to all east coast American ports would likely exceed the capacity of a future super-ship of over 30,000-TEUs. In response and during different times of the year, the super-ships could sail at higher frequency to a North American east coast transshipment terminal via Suez Canal and Arctic passage. Ongoing development of the Suez Canal would allow for development of larger container ships that could sail to both Western Mediterranean and Northeastern American transshipment terminals.


The initiatives being undertaken by the Suez Canal Authority promised to bring about major change in the world of international ship transportation. Within a decade, large oil tankers and much larger container ships will sail between Mediterranean and Red Seas in less time than present day. The combination of 315-meter width per parallel channel along with increased sailing draft and increased beam provides Asian shipyards and their customers with a reason to develop larger container ships. There is also potential to develop technology to allow extraordinarily large ships to transit the canal without damaging the canal shoreline.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.