Dutch float a big idea

by Alan Dickey

Designing, engineering and building ships has always been governed by two major limiting factors – the fact that two locations in the world, the Panama and Suez canals, limit their size.

But now a Dutch design team has laid down the gauntlet at the door of naval architects the world over, producing a blueprint for the world’s largest container ship. In doing so they have raised the possibility of a complete shake up of trade between Europe and the Far East. The commercial knock-on effect of the vessel would be profound if she ever gets built.

The design comes from Professor Niko Wijnolst, chairman of the Dutch Maritime Network and a member of the Marine Engineering faculty at Delft University of Technology, and Marco Scholtens, a Delft student of naval architecture.

The ultra-large ship, which would cost about $180m, is designed to carry more than twice the number of containers possible on conventional large ships. She would be 400m long and is only a design possibility because of one important factor, as Wijnolst explained: `Everyone believes that the Suez Canal is a limiting factor in ship design terms. But this simply isn’t the case.

`The canal is permanently dredged and there is a plan to deepen it substantially, mainly to enable the very large crude carrier class of vessels to pass through. So we decided to explore the possibilities of designing a container ship which could take advantage of this.’

`We’ve made an estimate that the canal authorities will carry out work to take the canal to a draft of some 21m in roughly 10 years’ time. In short, we’re forecasting that the Suezmax class will become redundant.’

But could a ship this size really be practical? Marco Scholtens, the young marine engineer who produced the blueprint with Wijnolst, certainly thinks so.

`Everywhere I go the first reaction of the shipping community is one of shock. But if you talk to people they don’t write the idea off immediately. Most people are quite willing to give the idea serious consideration,’ he said.

At first sight, there’s not a huge difference between this and conventional large container ships. But the ship would be one of just eight or nine in the world and would have a profound effect on European and Far Eastern industries and their trading patterns. The waters of North America are too shallow for a ship of this scale and no amount of dredging work can ever change that fact.