Every quarter Maritime CEO magazine poses a series of topical questions to readers to answer online.
Typically we tend to get anywhere from 600 to 1,200 responses. In the four years of running these polls we have never had a question that has received a 100% answer one way or another … until now. There are still a few weeks to go till polls close, mind, but in the latest survey all 390 respondents believe not all hub ports are prepared for ultra large container vessels. No one believes that every hub port is ready to handle these leviathans.
The issue was brought into sharp focus earlier this year with the recent grounding of the 19,000 TEU container vessel CSCL Indian Ocean, which was close to being a real catastrophe. But the experienced pilot reacted immediately, when the navigation system failed and prevented the worst from happening. The ship grounded hard on the soft banks of the river Elbe just outside Hamburg.
After initial attempts to pull the ship off the banks had failed, the Central Command for Maritime Emergencies (CCME), which took over the control of the salvage operations together with renowned salvage experts, decided to lighten the vessel as much as possible and commence a dredging operation around the giant ship. Eventually a winter storm and a spring tide in combination with 12 tugs of an aggregated 1085 tons of bollard pull were needed to refloat the vessel safely.
Everything went well and the situation was certainly handled in a very professional manner, with very little interruption of the regular business and without any oil pollution. No doubt, the Port of Hamburg has proven that it is very well prepared to handle such emergencies.
Regardless, however, this is a wake-up call for the entire maritime industry. The ships are getting bigger and the ports are struggling worldwide to cope with the issues created by the ultra large container vessels (ULCVs).
Which ports along the trade route are capable of pulling a 180,000 DWT vessel off the banks, once stranded? How do you discharge the containers when there is no crane big enough to reach out to the top tiers? How do you place a jack-up platform on the soft grounds of a muddy river? What do you do, if a river or a port entrance is blocked by one of those 400m long vessels? Who pays for the costs of the ships, which are trapped and those which have to deviate? What will happen if one goes on fire, even if it is docked? Are port fire fighters equipped to reach the highest containers?
It seems clear that ports continue to play catch-up in the containership supersizing era.