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Supersize This

Taking a Gander: Giant shipping vessels threaten existing infrastructure.



For years, we've been told that "size doesn't matter." Just tell that to a kid with a one-inch rock in her left shoe; to a commuter in a Volkswagen who just collided, head-on, with a dump truck; to a hippopotamus that just decided it didn't like your canoe invading the waters of its pod; or to a company, in its infancy, that finds that the mammoth business monopolies of today are not going to let a little guy win.

We live in a world where everything is bigger than it was in yesteryear. Each generation of Americans—along with much of the modern world—has trended toward bigger homes than their parents owned; corporations, which, in the past, had been subject to antitrust limitations, have grown to multibillion dollars, out-of-control market forces; government has far exceeded the size and scope envisioned by the Founding Fathers; and the threat of ever-greater health pandemics gives even the most robust optimists a sense of prophetic dread. So, no one can equivocate; there is a trend to ever-bigger things, and that trend comes with its own problems.

The plight of the Ever Given—the monster, 400-million-pound behemoth container ship that blocked the Suez Canal for almost a week—is a case in point.

Shipping engineers may have overstepped the bounds of sanity in designing ships that are too unwieldy to navigate narrow, restrictive waterways—waterways that have greatly expanded the ability to efficiently move goods throughout the world. It doesn't seem to matter that these newer, monster ships have the most sophisticated propulsion systems, allowing precise movement in virtually any direction. For some reason, even the presence of two specially trained, experienced "canal pilots" supplied by the Egyptian government, was unable to avert the lodging of Ever Given between the two banks of the canal. New accounts have described how satellite imagery showed the ship, struggling in a high wind, weaved back and forth for as long as 30 minutes before it plugged one of the most strategic shipping routes in the world. Once the ship wedged between the canal banks, it took almost a week to get it unstuck.

While tugboats tugged and dredging equipment tried, in vain, to remove the sand and mud that held the ship motionless, one-eighth of the world's shipping was put on dead-in-the-water hold. During that time, hundreds of other ships, waiting for passage through the canal, were stranded, causing billions in damages to shippers, shipping lines and their insurers. The impact was devastating, and it should raise questions on whether it's prudent to create bigger-and-bigger ships. It is, frankly, almost unimaginable that a single vessel could have blocked a route that carries one-eighth of the entire world's shipping.

The Ever Given was a quarter mile long, capable of carrying up to 20,000 garage-size containers, and it's one of the largest cargo ships in the world. The Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria could likely have been stuffed into the captain's cabin.

Obviously, the economy of scale that has encouraged the building of ever-greater-size ships, has been good for the shipping lines, the customers, and for the size of the carbon imprint that they leave in their wake. There's no question that using a single powerplant to move ever-bigger loads makes a lot of sense, so there are more of these monster ships on the way. An article in The Conversation reported that there have been at least 133 ships built over the past 15 years that are each capable of carrying between 18,000 and 24,000 containers. But is that wise?

Unfortunately, size creates its own set of problems. The stack-'em-high load of containers creates a veritable sail in the wind, making the vessels hard to control during tight maneuvering in even a mild blow. And it's no small task for authorities to create bigger and better infrastructure to accommodate the monsters—something that's led to the expenditure of billions of dollars on the Panama and Suez canals. Insurers are faced with burgeoning liabilities because of the potential for single-loss disasters, and the cost of lost containers, at sea—the same type of accident that inspired the movie, All Is Lost, is a growing problem that is largely due to the shipping industry's runaway gigantism.

Before its accidental grounding, the Ever Given had simply been an example of how economies of scale operate. Like adding dozens of railroad cars, trailing behind a few stout locomotives, the efficiency of size has been a consistent theme in the world of transportation. It's true of passenger jets, buses maximized in their capacities by the addition of one or more trailer sections, and growing numbers of SUVs that have that third row of seats. Anytime one powerplant can be used to move more, the engineers and the manufacturers see that it's done.

Unfortunately, that model of efficiency has its share of functional problems, and the Ever Given will be a reminder, for years, of how creating devices of mammoth size can run amok. For, running amok is exactly what happened to the huge vessel—a ship that stretched the capacity of docking facilities and will likely inspire a new set of modifications to the Suez Canal.

Certainly, the economic disaster caused by the grounding of the Ever Given should give the shipping world an opportunity to re-think its belief that economies of scale are the only consideration. Bigger is not necessarily better.

We can now see, more clearly that size really does matter. Helpful? Yes, but it can also be a recipe for disaster.

The author is a retired businessman, novelist, columnist and former Vietnam-era Army assistant public information officer. He resides in Riverton with his wife, Carol, and the beloved ashes of their mongrel dog.