What Is a Container Ship?

Container ships are vessels used to transport different types of containerized cargo. These are measured in 20-foot equivalent units (TEU), which are based on the volume of a standard 20-foot-long intermodal container.

Container ships are vital to the global economy, streamlining international trade through their efficient and vast cargo capacities. Their ability to transport thousands of standardized containers expedites loading and reduces costs, making products more affordable and promoting globalization. The flexibility of containerization allows diverse goods to be shipped together, enhancing trade efficiency. Moreover, compared to other transportation methods, they offer a more carbon-efficient means to move large volumes, connecting global markets and bolstering economic growth.

Today, it’s estimated that more than 5,400 container ships are in operation worldwide, with an overall capacity of approximately 24.6 million TEUs.

History of Container Ships

The use of container ships began in the mid-1950s. The first generation of container ships were modified versions of bulk vessels or tankers. Early container ships traveled at speeds of 18 to 20 knots and could only carry containers on their converted decks. Soon after, fully cellular container ships were built, dedicated to transporting containerized cargo. Cranes were removed from the ship design to allow more space for containers, and speeds increased to 20 to 24 knots.

In the 1980s, the maritime marketplace demanded larger container ships to lower the cost per TEU. This change led to the standardization of sizes across the industry, notably including the size limit of the Panama Canal. This led to the Panamax standard in 1985, which limited ships to 4,000 TEUs. In 1996, container ships were introduced with capacities exceeding 6,500 TEUs, quickly leading to even larger ships (some reaching 8,000 TEUs).

When the expanded Panama Canal was announced, new Panamax (NPX) ships were built, with a capacity of up to 12,500 TEUs. These ships were designed to service the Americas and the Caribbean, as well as Europe and Asia. Vessels called "post new Panamax" with capacities of 11,000 to 14,500 TEUs were introduced in 2006 by Maersk. These container ships were mostly restricted to routes in Asia and Europe. 

As of March 2023, the record for the world’s largest container ship is held jointly by three vessels, the MSC Irina, MSC Michel Cappellini, and MSC Loreto, each of which has a 24,346-TEU capacity.

Container Ships: Interesting Facts & Info

  • Since the turn of the century, the average size of container vessels has more than doubled. 
  • Today’s biggest container ships can carry as much cargo as a 44-mile-long freight train.
  • A container ship’s engine is about 1,250 times more powerful than a standard automobile.
  • An empty 20-foot (TEU) container typically weighs around 2 tonnes.
  • Container ships transport more than 1 billion tonnes of goods internationally. 
  • Some of the earliest container ships were converted WWII vessels.
  • Transporting a 20-foot container loaded with over 20 tonnes of goods from Asia to Europe costs roughly the same as an economy flight ticket for an individual traveling the same route.

Current Sizes of Container Ships in Operation

  • Small Feeder: Capacity of up to 1,000 TEUs
  • Feeder: Capacity of 1,001 to 2,000 TEUs
  • Feedermax: Capacity of 2,001 to 3,000 TEUs
  • Panamax: Capacity of 3,001 to 5,100 TEUs
  • New Panamax / Post New Panamax: Capacity of 5,101 to 14,500 TEUs
  • Very Large Container Ship (VLCS): Capacity of 10,000 to 20,000 TEUs
  • Ultra Large Container Ship (ULCS): Capacity of 20,000+ TEUs

What Types of Cargo Do Container Ships Carry?

Container ships are designed to transport a vast array of goods, both for consumer and industrial purposes. Typically, container ships carry:

  • Consumer goods, such as electronics, clothing, footwear, toys, and household items.
  • Machinery and spare parts, from automotive parts to industrial equipment.
  • Raw materials, including metals, plastics, and textiles.
  • Chemicals and pharmaceuticals, which often require specialized containers to ensure safe transport.
  • Furniture and home furnishings, such as sofas, beds, tables, and cabinets.
  • Vehicles, including cars, trucks, and even smaller boats that can be loaded into specialized or regular containers.
  • Agricultural products, such as fruits, vegetables, and meat.
  • Hazardous materials, which are shipped under strict guidelines and in specialized containers.
  • Building materials, such as timber, steel, and tiles.
  • Food products, both perishable (which are transported in refrigerated containers, known as "reefers") and non-perishable, such as grains, canned foods, beverages, and coffee beans.

Given the standardized nature of container sizes, a wide variety of goods can be efficiently packed, transported, and tracked using modern logistics and management systems.

What Are the Major Concerns with Container Ships?

The evolution of container ships, marked by their increasing size and swifter speeds (with some reaching velocities of up to 25 knots), has brought a host of challenges to the maritime industry.

As these gigantic vessels developed, many global ports and harbors found themselves ill-equipped to accommodate them. This limitation isn't just about berth size but also includes the depth of water channels, the height under bridges, and the capacity of cranes and other unloading equipment. The sheer size of these ships also meant that only a limited number of ports could handle their operations, leading to bottlenecks and increased pressure on specific port cities.

The propulsion of such massive ships demands considerable energy. While larger container ships can carry more cargo per unit of energy, the absolute amount of fuel consumed is substantial. This leads to concerns about emissions, environmental impacts, and economic costs, especially in an era where environmental sustainability is paramount.

Various safety concerns are associated with today’s container ships:

  • Risk of Capsizing: The taller and broader a ship, the more susceptible it becomes to forces like wind and waves, raising concerns about stability and the potential for capsizing.
  • Maneuverability in Constrained Areas: Due to their size, these ships can find it challenging to navigate smaller, constrained spaces, raising the risk of collisions or allisions with other vessels, docks, or infrastructure.
  • Lost Containers: Containers may be dislodged in rough seas, adding to marine debris and posing navigational hazards. Lost containers also have environmental impacts if they carry pollutants or non-biodegradable materials.
  • Piracy Concerns: The cargo on container ships makes them attractive targets for maritime pirates. Modern pirates have become increasingly sophisticated, using a combination of technology and force to take over vessels.

The challenges posed by these mega container ships necessitate continuous innovation, improved regulations, and international collaboration to ensure that the benefits of globalized trade do not come at the expense of safety and environmental sustainability. Cargo ship owners and operators must be vigilant in implementing safety standards.

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