On board the world's biggest ship

By Justin Parkinson
BBC News Magazine

  • Published
MSC OscarImage source, Phil Coomes

The latest ship to take the title of "world's biggest cargo carrier" has docked in the UK. What's it like on board?

"It doesn't look so different when you look out from the front of the bridge," says captain Giuseppe Silviero. "But when you look out the back, you realise it's about 200m longer than some of the other ships."

As a chilly wind blows from the North Sea, the Oscar pulls slowly into port. Tugs, one spraying jets of water into the air in traditional maritime celebration, heave it sideways into berths eight and nine at Felixstowe.

Able to hold 19,224 standard 20ft-long containers, the Oscar is the world's biggest carrier ship, in terms of volume. Built by Daewoo in South Korea at a cost of $140m (£93m) and named after the eight-year-old son of Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) president and chief executive Diego Aponte, she is 395.4m (1,297ft) long - a few metres greater than the height of New York's Empire State building, if the antenna on top is not taken into account.

Measuring 73m (240ft) high and 59m (194ft) wide, the Oscar's silhouette is visible from miles away, even on a misty East Anglian morning.

But Silviero, an Italian who has captained merchant ships for 23 years, is unfazed by being in charge of it. "I've been doing this job throughout what you might call the era of the mega-ships," he says. "I've captained ships that take 11,000, 12,000 and 14,000 containers." A ship of whatever size is still a ship, he reasons.

The Oscar has a different effect on the several hundred enthusiasts gathered near Felixstowe port's entrance to cheer and photograph its arrival, following its maiden voyage from Qingdao in China.

The shipping industry has undergone what some call an "arms race" in the last couple of decades. The Oscar's predecessor as the biggest vessel was the 19,100-container-capacity, Chinese-owned Globe, which held the title for 53 days and visited Felixstowe in January. Thirty years ago, no ship was capable of carrying more than 5,000 containers.

It takes the crew and port staff about half an hour to tether the Oscar, which must be manoeuvred slowly into its berth in case it crashes into the side, its gross tonnage of 193,000 capable of huge damage.

"It's quite a sight," says Clemence Cheng, chief executive of HPUK, owner of Felixstowe, which handled the equivalent of more than four million standard containers for the first time last year. "We've invested so that we can take ships of this size here."

Even the biggest are dealt with within 36 hours, the movements of every container, lorry and train planned with maximum accuracy. Once the Oscar is in situ, a line of six cranes gets into action within 20 minutes.

Felixstowe, along with other major European and Asian ports, has been upgraded in recent years to deal with the volume of cargo the mega-ships bring. US ports have not done the same, meaning the Oscar cannot dock there, while the Panama Canal would have to be widened to allow her through.

Image source, Phil Coomes

Each crane at Felixstowe removes containers, putting them onto waiting shuttle vehicles at a rate of more than one every two minutes. If the traditional image of a busy port is of hustle and bustle, Felixstowe is notably human-free, the dockside largely empty as the cranes do their work. A few workers in yellow hats and high-visibility jackets look tiny next to the Oscar, the letters MSC painted in white letters more than 20m high on its black and red hull.

The crane mechanisms whirr as their yellow "spreaders" carry the containers at speed from the top of the piles onboard downwards. There is a bang as they clamp on and another as they deposit them.

The steps used by the crew to climb on board the Oscar seem comparatively rickety, but with a safety net below.

Further up, in the bridge, Captain Silviero monitors banks of instruments. On one side the town of Felixstowe is visible, its spires juxtaposed behind thousands of containers, mainly red, grey and blue, stacked in the near distance. On the other can be seen the port of Harwich.

The Oscar's quarters, which can accommodate up to 35 people but are home to only 24 on this voyage, are built into a narrow white section midway along the ship. They smell of fresh paint.

Does it get a bit too cosy spending several months in close proximity with other men [it's all-male crew]? What can they do to relieve the boredom?

"We have a competition," says one crew member. "We have to run up and down the stairs as fast as possible." As the accommodation/bridge section has 160-odd steps, it's a quick way to get fit, but not the only one.

"We have a treadmill that we've put in as part of a little gym, and a table tennis table," says Silviero, veteran of more uncomfortable vessels from his days in the Italian Navy. "We have a good group here." A cook prepares meals. There are seating areas, but the emphasis is on work. Shorter stop-offs mean there isn't the time once available for lengthy and adventurous shore leave.

The Oscar, with a service speed of 22.8 knots and a cruising range of 26,300 miles, is slower than some ships. It and other mega-ships are built to ensure fuel-efficiency and lower staffing costs.

The engine generates 16 megawatts of power, the equivalent of 8,000 household kettles or 800,000 electric razors.

Housed in a chamber stretching over several floors, the crew approaches it by a network of eerily empty tunnels, lined with piping. A diesel generator, painted in a light blue-green shade, pulsates loudly, continuing to run while in port.

The Oscar is bulky and built for utility rather than beauty. But Dan Everitt, managing director of MSC UK, who grew up in Ipswich, a few miles away from Felixstowe, thinks there's still some "romance" in the race for more capacity. "It's absolutely fantastic to see. These ships have revolutionised world trade."

Standard containers have been in use since the mid-1950s, before which many goods were handled individually.

"I'm very proud to see the Oscar docking in Suffolk," Everitt says. "I've called her a monster, but she's not really. She's a giant, a state-of-the-art giant."

The Oscar is about half-full when it arrives at Felixstowe. Most of its containers are cuboid, but a few are rounded, carrying liquid goods such as chemicals, vegetable oil and, sometimes, wine.

In April, it is due to be joined by a twin ship, the Oliver, named after one of Oscar Aponte's cousins. Asked if, maybe, the company could add just a couple of containers' worth of space to the Oliver to allow the company to break the record again, Everitt laughs. It wouldn't last long.

The reason is that the Japanese shipping firm MOL has just commissioned six ships capable of carrying more than 20,000 standard containers. Captain Silviero isn't sure if the race to be biggest can continue, but he's not ruling it out either.

Pictures by Phil Coomes

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Image source, Getty Images

"It's like an office block lying on its side. It's a huge beast." In January, what was then the world's largest container ship, the Globe, docked in Britain for the first time.

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