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What Is a Containership?

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

History of Containerships

The use of containerships began in the mid-1950s when containerization began.

This led to the first generation of containerships, which were modified versions of either bulk vessels or tankers. The early containerships could only travel at speed of 18 to 20 knots, and could only carry containers on their converted decks. Soon after, fully cellular containerships were built. These vessels were dedicated to transporting containerized cargo. This generation of vessels removed cranes from the ship design to allow more space for containers and significantly increased navigation speed to 20 to 24 knots.

In the 1980s, the maritime marketplace demanded larger containerships, as the more containers that could be carried on a ship, the lower the costs per TEU. This change led to the standardization of sizes across the industry, notably including the size limit of the Panama Canal leading to the panamax standard in 1985. The panamax standard limited ships to 4,000 TEUs. A decade passed before this limit increased. In 1996, containerships 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 up to 12,500 TEUs. These ships were designed to service the Americas and the Caribbean, as well as Europe and Asia. Ships called " post new panamax" with capacities between 11,000 to 14,500 TEUs were introduced in 2006 by Maersk, and are larger than the new Panama Canal would allow. Due to restrictions, these newest and largest containerships will be mostly restricted to routes of Asia and Europe.

Current Sizes of Containerships 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
  • Ultra Large Container Vessel (ULCV): Capacity of 14,501 TEUs and higher

What are the major concerns with containerships?

As containerships began to increase in both capacity and speed (reaching up to 25 knots), shipping lines ran into problems with energy consumption and the number of harbors able to accommodate these vessels.

There are also significant safety issues connected to the use of containerships:

  • The danger of capsizing
  • Difficulties moving in small spaces (leading to collisions / allisions)
  • Containers being lost at sea (becoming "marine debris")
  • The increased threat of maritime piracy

If you have further questions about containerships or would like to learn more about applicable maritime laws, we encourage you to contact our offshore injury lawyers at Arnold & Itkin as soon as possible.

Reach our maritime lawyers by calling (888) 346-5024 or by filling out an online case evaluation form.

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