It may be 365 metres long but container giant can outrun pirates

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 December, 2009, 12:00am

When it comes to container ships, big is better - weather permitting.

Just ask Pierre Gilles Coat, the master of the new flagship container vessel that French shipping company CMA CGM took delivery of from Daewoo Shipyard in South Korea last month.

At an impressive 365 metres long, 51.2 metres wide and displacing 200,000 tonnes, the Christophe Colomb is the largest of the Marseilles-based group's 360 ships, and before he took over the helm for her maiden voyage now under way, the veteran skipper went back to computer simulation school to brush up on his bad-weather berthing skills.

Le Havre-born Coat, who has had more than 30 years of seafaring experience, the last 10 of which has been in command, is not shy to admit that if all else fails, then a captain of a ship this size might pray for good weather.

That is because the bigger the ship and its cargo, the more costly are delays; and one thing sure to cause delays and hold up the turnaround time of a big ship is bad weather.

Since the advent of container trade between Seattle and Alaska in 1951, container ships have grown steadily bigger in response to the surge in demand for shipping freight.

When Coat first joined the French shipping line in 1975, the common vessel type could carry between 1,500 and 5,700 20-foot equivalent units (teu). The Christophe Colomb carries 13,300 teu, and the world's largest container vessel, built by Denmark's Maersk Line last year, carries 14,500 teu.

For crew members of the giant ships, this means burning the midnight oil when it comes to discharging containers so that the big ship can hurry on to its next destination, and so skilled have they become at the task of offloading their cargo that berthing time for vessels has shrunk to between six and 18 hours from two to three days in the past.

That means the captain must stick to a tight sailing schedule.

'We don't have time to go ashore any longer, because we are always running out of time. On my last 8,500-teu container vessel, I was calling at three ports within 72 hours, from Chiwan to Nansha followed by Yantian. I had just a few hours to sleep,' said Coat.

When the Christophe Colomb made its first call at Terminal 9 in Kwai Tsing terminal on November 17, about 3,000 containers were moved in and out within 12 hours. Every second counts.

From the perspective of the shipowner or operator, it is easy to understand the importance of a quick turnaround, since the operating cost for a ship with a capacity of 10,000-plus teu amounts to about US$60,000 per day, according to the daily charter rate.

Times have plainly changed since the days when it did not matter so much if a ship lay in port for a few days, allowing the crew to enjoy some shore leave.

In Hong Kong, the hospitality shown to sailors quickly became legendary, and the first port of call during shore leave in the early 20th century were the Wan Chai pubs and hotels, some of which survive but see far less business than they once did because of the haste with which ships dock and depart nowadays.

The larger ships are also equipped with more advanced technology and spend fewer days at sea, under more pleasant conditions.

'We complete one trip in seven to 10 weeks nowadays,' says Coat, and that is a huge contrast to the past, when ships' crew had to sail for between three and four months in shared cabins without air conditioning to complete a single trip.

Shorter voyage time also means the crew do not have to be separated from their family for most of the year, making the trips less unbearable. Another advantage of sailing in a larger ship is improved safety.

Pirates preying on the coast around the Gulf of Aden have become a hazard to the vessels that go through the Suez Canal, a vital passageway for Asia-Europe trade.

Warships from China, the United States, Britain, Russia and Japan have been summoned to convoy the commercial vessels in the pirate-plagued area.

However, pirates posed less of a threat to big ships such as the Christophe Colomb, said Coat.

'We are too big and too fast for the pirates to catch up with us,' he said.

Although its ecologically conservative speed is about 20 knots, the Christophe Colomb can sail at up to 24 knots, which is even faster than the speedboats that are typically used by pirates.

And the top of the ship's hull rose 14.6 metres above sea level, he added, which acts as a natural defensive wall against pirates.

However, Coat still opts to sail the vessel far off the coastline, complying with the recommendation of the shipping company, although he believes that sailing closer to the shore could save more fuel.

In an effort to combat higher fuel costs and meet stringent environmental requirements, the Christophe Colomb is equipped with new technology to cut fuel consumption and emissions.

The rudder of the ship is oriented to optimise the flow of water, while its propeller is fitted with a device to alter the inflow angles of water, resulting in a 2 to 4 per cent reduction in fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

The biggest challenge to the captain in the new operating environment, however, is not pirates but increased paperwork, Coat jests.

'Personally, I have only four years to go before retirement, so I will go to the end,' Coat said.

'But I don't know if I would choose to start again in this job as a cadet, knowing that all that paperwork needs to be done.'

Fast turnaround

Berthing time has now shrunk to 6-18 hours from 2-3 days in the past

Containers moved in 12 hours when the Christophe Colomb came to Kwai Tsing: 3,000