The mood on the bridge is a little tense. It’s after 11pm and no one is talking because what’s about to happen is pretty rare. Easing the Ebba Maersk – one of the largest container ships in the world – past another vessel her size in such narrow waters will be nerve-wracking even for this seasoned crew. “It’s something you don’t see every day,” Ovidiu Dinicut, the First Officer, tells me later.
The Ebba meets the Barzan, a container ship of a similar scale, coming the other way as she heads out of Felixstowe on the south east coast of the UK. The distant lights of the port blaze in the night, silhouetting containers and cranes behind us.
This will be one of the trickiest parts of the voyage, as there is far less room to manoeuvre here than on the open sea. This close to shore the water is not very deep and the lane in which huge ships like these can travel is narrow.
The Ebba is on its way to Rotterdam in the Netherlands. It’s a journey that will take her past the busiest shipping channel in the world. And it’s getting more crowded. In 2015, more very large ships came to the Port of London – 70 miles (113km) down the coast from Felixstowe - than ever before. In total, 45.4 million tonnes of cargo passed through the port, 2% more than the previous year.
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Nearly all the things you own came from somewhere else in the world and they reached you by ship. On land it’s easy to forget that at any given moment there are around 50,000 merchant ships crisscrossing the oceans – carrying as many as 5-6 million containers stuffed with goods. With global trade increasing, the ships are getting bigger and the shipping routes becoming crowded.
It’s easy to forget that at any given moment there are around 50,000 merchant ships crisscrossing the oceans
“It’s getting significantly busier. And because of the increase in traffic, vessels find themselves increasingly constrained by other traffic using the waterway,” says Roger Barker at London’s Trinity House, a maritime and navigation charity. “They’re also passing closer together because they’re following the same defined routes.”
Mark Charley, a ship pilot from the Harwich Haven Authority, is on board to assist the Ebba’s crew. He and the pilot temporarily posted on the approaching Barzan routinely join ships like these to guide them in and out of port. It is moments like this that everybody here trains for.
Both pilots communicate on walkie-talkies. Everyone’s eyes are on the colossus ahead. Charley calls out instructions to the Ebba’s Third Officer, Rey Coronel, who is controlling the rudder. “Port 10,” Charley calls. “Port 10,” comes the reply, as the ship’s direction is adjusted. “Midships,” says Charley. “Midships,” says Coronel.
- Watch a timelapse video of the balletic action on display in container ship ports
The behemoths – both around 400m-long (1300ft) – are not moving at anywhere near their top speeds. Even so, the Barzan almost looks like it is coming straight at us, its lights bearing down on us in the darkness.
When two very large ships sail past one another, there is a huge - yet not immediately obvious - displacement of water around their hulls. When close, these currents rush against each other, pushing the ships’ bows apart as they begin the pass and pulling the sterns together as they complete it. If not properly positioned, the sterns could easily collide as a result.
The Ebba is longer than the Empire State Building is tall and well over 200,000 tonnes when loaded
The smaller of the two, the Ebba is still 19m (62ft) longer than the Empire State Building is tall and well over 200,000 tonnes when loaded. The surface area of her profile means that a high wind can push and pull her like a giant steel sail, making turning against a gale difficult or even impossible.
And you can’t just slam on the brakes if something goes wrong. “If there’s an emergency and you need to stop as fast as possible, then you need to run the engines full astern,” says Dinicut. “Of course it depends on the ship’s loading, on the wind and the waves, but if I were to estimate that from 10 knots [11mph] to a complete stop it would take her maybe 15 minutes – or two miles. It’s an enormous distance.”
With the final course adjustments made, the Ebba and Barzan pass in the night. Looking across to the other ship, she can’t be more than a couple of hundred metres away. “It’s an impressive sight, isn’t it?” says Captain Roel van Hoete. After overseeing the whole manoeuvre, he looks thrilled.
Charley, the pilot, clambers down a ladder to a tiny boat that will take him back to shore. The Ebba is on her way.
About 90% of all non-bulk cargo in the world is shipped not by road or plane, but by sea. There are now more than 30 container ships longer than 390m (1280ft). These vessels are truly gargantuan steel beasts, each able to carry at least 10,000 containers - and sometimes almost double that many. The Ebba herself was fully loaded when she arrived at Felixstowe from Sri Lanka a few days earlier.
About 90% of all non-bulk cargo in the world is shipped not by road or plane, but by sea
The sheer size of these ships makes them difficult to manoeuvre. That, coupled with the fact that so many vessels traverse British waterways, means that once-rare episodes like the nail-biting passing of the Barzan are becoming more common.
On this journey, the Ebba will pass just northeast of the busiest shipping lane in the world – the Dover Strait, which is used by more than 400 commercial vessels every day. Other shipping hotspots include the Panama Canal, the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, and the Cape of Good Hope. With so much traffic, Barker says that the challenge for captains and navigators is growing.
As well as being difficult to stop and manoeuvre, big ships also lie deeper in the water than their smaller cousins. This makes things more complicated for people like Barker, who must keep tabs on the shipping traffic flowing around Britain and make sure that any wrecks are quickly flagged to passing vessels.
Take the example of a medium-sized fishing vessel. Even one just 50m (164ft) long, far smaller than a container ship, would pose a real threat if it sank upright with its bow hidden just under the waves.
What’s more, in busy waterways you are surrounded by many different vessels, all with their own limited movement. As the Ebba moves closer to Rotterdam the following morning, she passes a large cargo ship for Hoegh Autoliners carrying road vehicles. Another that looks like a bulk carrier crosses the Ebba’s path in the distance. On the horizon, within just a few miles of us, are five other ships. A smaller Maersk container ship, the Idaho, appears a little later.
With so much traffic, the challenge for captains and navigators is growing
However, the Ebba’s crew is used to navigating places like this. First Officer Dinicut has been all around the world on Maersk vessels. Dinicut is from Romania and is stationed aboard the Ebba for two months at a time, with two months off in between shifts. But navigation is only one of his duties. He is also responsible for staffing, balancing the load of the containers taken on at each port, managing the ship’s security and occasionally acting as the medical officer.
The ship helps out as much as she can. Built in 2007, the Ebba is equipped with all kinds of modern instrumentation that let her crew pilot her safely. Demonstrating the radar on the bridge, Third Officer Coronel shows how it can pick up anchored vessels, the coastline, nearby buoys and even estimate the course of moving ships.
This data is used by the electronic chart display, which shows the depths of the sea at any nearby point, obstacles like sand banks, and other ships in the area relative to the Ebba’s position. The ship can even plot its own predicted course based on her current movement. Finally, there is a paper chart and some powerful binoculars on the bridge. Sometimes you can’t beat a good pair of eyes.
Down in the engine control room, Second Engineer Henrik Jensen is bursting with facts about the sheer scale of the Ebba. “All numbers regarding technical issues on this ship are huge,” he says, gesticulating with arms spread wide.
There isn’t a bigger diesel engine anywhere in the world than the one that’s on E-class ships like the Ebba
He reels off some of his favourite examples. There are 5,000 individual alarm channels that can alert the crew to everything from too much pressure in an oil tank to a valve that is not closing properly. The rudder is 110 sq m (1184 sq ft) – bigger than many London flats. The shaft from the engine to the propeller is more than 100m (328ft) long. And the engine itself? There isn’t another diesel engine bigger anywhere in the world, on land or sea, than the one that’s on these E-class Maersk ships like the Ebba.
Running these giants is costly, though. There’s significant pressure on the industry for ships to be more efficient, desite already tight margins. Shipping remains essential for world trade but the container market is in a slump. On the day that the Ebba departed Felixstowe, the Financial Times published a report about plummeting profits in the sector. Maersk Line’s own net operating profit for the first quarter of 2016 was down 95% on the same quarter the previous year. The downward trend continued into 2016’s second and third quarter.
- In the video above, see inside the Ebba Maersk – and hear from the crew who keep her running.
Still, most of the world’s ships sail on. When docked at Felixstowe the containers on the Ebba were loaded and unloaded until just a minute or two before she sailed. She had plenty of room to spare, but containers were still piled high above the lower decks.
And when she approaches Rotterdam – Europe’s largest port and the sixth largest in the world, at two thirds the size of the Isle of Wight – an industrial ballet takes place. The Ebba sails towards her quay but with the help of tugs must pirouette 180 degrees in order to reverse into the berth. A container ship is being loaded nearby. In the background, driverless vehicles deliver containers to automated dockside cranes.
The crew have no idea what's inside these many thousands of containers that they move millions of miles
Within minutes of tying fast, another set of cranes have lowered over the Ebba and her own entourage of driverless trucks will soon be bringing new containers and ferrying other ones away.
In two days, the Ebba will carry these to Hamburg in Germany and then Le Havre, France. The crew typically have little idea about what is inside the many thousands of containers that they help move across millions of miles. They are told about hazardous or specialist cargo, but otherwise the boxes could contain anything from toys to car parts to clothes.
In the ship’s office, Dinicut tries to put the experience of being a crewmember on a vessel like this into words. “It does create a certain sense of freedom. You do feel it sometimes, when you’re out at sea and coming out of these busy ports, you see the open sea, it gives you a feeling of, ‘Ah, I’ve done a good job, I can relax for five minutes’,” he says.
“But then you start all over again.”
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