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Container ships are cargo ships that carry all of their load in truck-size intermodal containers, in a technique called containerization. They form a common means of commercial intermodal freight transport.


The earliest container ships were converted tanker, built up from surplus T2 tankers after World War II. In 1951 the first purpose-built container vessels began operating in Denmarkmarker, and between Seattlemarker and Alaskamarker.

The first purpose-built container ship in the United States was the Ideal-X , a T2 tanker, owned by Malcom McLean, which carried 58 metal containers between Newark, New Jerseymarker and Houston, Texasmarker on its first voyage, in April 1956.

Today, approximately 90% of non-bulk cargo worldwide is transported by container, and modern container ships can carry up to . As a class, container ships now rival crude oil tankers and bulk carriers as the largest commercial vessels on the ocean.


The "Zrin" container ship has self-unloading capability
Container ship "CMA CGM Balzac" in the port of Zeebrugge Belgium.

Container ships are designed in a manner that optimizes space. Capacity is measured in Twenty-foot equivalent unit (TEU), the number of standard 20-foot containers measuring 20 × 8.0 × 8.5 feet (6.1 × 2.4 × 2.6 metres) a vessel can carry. This not withstanding, most containers used today measure 40 feet (12 metres) in length. Above a certain size, container ships do not carry their own loading gear, so loading and unloading can only be done at ports with the necessary cranes. However, smaller ships with capacities up to are often equipped with their own cranes.

Informally known as "box boats," they carry the majority of the world's dry cargo, meaning manufactured goods. Cargoes like metal ores or coal or wheat are carried in bulk carriers. There are large main line vessels that ply the deep sea routes, then many small "feeder" ships that supply the large ships at centralized hub port. Most container ships are propelled by diesel engines, and have crews of between 20 and 40 people. They generally have a large accommodation block at the stern, near the engine room. Container ships now carry up to (approximately equivalent to 35 100-car double-stack intermodal freight trains) on a voyage. The world's largest container ship, the M/V Emma Mærsk has a capacity of 15,200 containers.

In 2008 the South Korean shipbuilder STX announced plans to construct a container ship capable of carrying , and with a proposed length of 450 metres and a beam of 60 metres. If constructed, the container ship would become the largest seagoing vessel in the world.


Container fleet in 2006
Large container ships (over ) have been built in the following shipyards:


Container ship "Rita" loading at Copenhagen with crew on deck.

The ceaseless transit of these containers (at any given time, between 5 million and 6 million units) entails a great deal of risk.

Some of the risks are linked to the loading and unloading of containers. The risks involved in these operations affect both the cargo being moved onto or off the ship, as well as the ship itself. Containers, due to their fairly nondescript nature and the sheer number handled in major ports, require complex organization to ensure they are not lost, stolen or misrouted. In addition, as the containers and the cargo they contain make up the vast majority of the total weight of a cargo ship, the loading and unloading is a delicate balancing act, as it directly affects the centre of mass for the whole ship. In March 2007, a London based container ship capsized in Antwerp, Belgium while loading.

Maneuvers in coastal waters and ports managed in the wheel house may be dangerous, as evidenced by a container ship hitting the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridgemarker on November 7, 2007.

It has been estimated that container ships lose over 10,000 containers at sea each year. Most go overboard on the open sea during storms but there are some examples of whole ships being lost with their cargo. When containers are dropped, they immediately become an environmental threat — termed "marine debris".

Modern loading instruments (like MACS3 with BELCO, SEALASH and DAGO modules) assist to reduce the risks, caused by incorrect stowage of container cargo.


Cargo too large to carry in containers can be handled using flat racks, open top containers and platforms. There are also container ships called roll-on/roll-off (RORO), which utilize shore-based ramp systems for loading and unloading. ROROs are usually associated with shorter trade routes, as they are unable to carry the volume of crane-based container vessels. However, due to their flexibility and high speed, ROROs are frequently used in today's container markets.


Economies of scale have dictated an upward trend in sizes of container ships in order to reduce costs. One limit on ship size is the "Suezmax" standard, or the largest theoretical ship capable of passing through the Suez Canalmarker, which measures . Such a vessel would displace , be 400 meters long, more than 50 meters wide, have a draft of nearly 15 metres, and use more than 85 MW (113,987 hp) to achieve 25.5 knots, specifications met by the Emma Mærsk.

Beyond Suezmax lies the "Malaccamax" (for Straits of Malaccamarker) ship of , displacing , 470 meters long, 60 meters wide, 16 meters of draft, and using more than 100 MW (134,102 hp) for 25.5 knots. This is most likely the limit before a major restructuring of world container trade routes. The biggest constraint of this design, the absence of a capable single engine, has been overcome by the MAN B&W K108ME-C.

The ultimate problem was the absence of a manufacturer capable of producing the propeller needed for transmitting this power, which would be about 10 metres in diameter, and weigh 130 tonnes. One has since been built for the Emma Mærsk by Mecklenburger Metallguss GmbH in Waren, Germany. Other constraints, such as time in port and flexibility of service routes are similar to the constraints that eventually limited the growth in size of supertankers.

Largest ships

Ten Biggest Container Ship Classes, listed by TEU capacity
Built Name Sisterships Length o.a. Beam Maximum TEU GT Owners Flag
2006 Emma Mærsk 7 397.7 m 56.4 m 15,200 151,687 Maersk Linemarker Denmark
2009 MSC Danit 6 365.50 m 51.20 m 14,000 153,092 Mediterranean Shipping Company S.A. Panama
2009 MSC Beatrice 6 366 m 51 m 14,000 151,559 Mediterranean Shipping Company S.A. Panama
2008 CMA CGM Thalassa 1 346.5 m 45.6 m 10,960 128,600 CMA CGM Cyprus
2005 Gudrun Mærsk 5 367.3 m 42.8 m 10,150 97,933 Maersk Linemarker Denmark
2002 CLEMENTINE MAERSK 6 348.7 42.6 m 9,600 96000 Maersk Linemarker Denmark
2006 COSCO Guangzhou 4 350 m 42.8 m 9,450 99,833 COSCO Greece
2006 CMA CGM Medea 3 350 m 42.8 m 9,415 99,500 CMA CGM France
2003 Axel Mærsk 5 352.6 m 42.8 m 9,310 93,496 Maersk Linemarker Denmark
2006 NYK Vega 2 338.2 m 45.6 m 9,200
|| 97,825 || Nippon Yusen Kaisha || Panama

Busiest ports of call

Note: "TEU" stands for "Twenty-foot equivalent unit," i.e. a 20-foot intermodal container. Thus a 40-foot container is , etc.
Rank Port Country TEUs (000s) +/- from 2004 % change from 2004
1 Singaporemarker Singaporemarker 23,192 1,863 8.73
2 Hong Kongmarker Hong Kong SAR 22,427 443 2.02
3 Shanghai People's Republic of Chinamarker 18,084 3,527 24.23
4 Shenzhenmarker People's Republic of Chinamarker 16,197 2,582 18.96
5 Busanmarker South Koreamarker 11,843 413 3.61
6 Kaohsiung Taiwanmarker 9,471 0 0.00
7 Rotterdam Netherlandsmarker 9,287 1,006 12.15
8 Hamburg Germanymarker 8,088 1,085 15.49
9 Dubaimarker United Arab Emiratesmarker 7,619 1,190 18.51
10 Los Angelesmarker United States of Americamarker 7,485 164 2.24

See also


  1. Levinson, Marc: "The Box", pg. 1, Princeton University Press, 2006
  2. Emma Maersk (PDF)
  3. Propulsion Trends in Container Vessels, MAN B&W, 19 January 2005 (accessed 16 November 2005)
  4. AAPA World Port Rankings 2005

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