Greek shipowners have been bitten by the ''box bug.''

After amassing the world's biggest fleet, largely comprising oil tankers and bulk carriers, Greek owners are now investing in container ships.But the Greeks aren't about to enter the liner business and compete against the likes of Sea-Land Service Inc., Evergreen Group and P&O Nedlloyd.

The sole Greek company to ply the liner trades, Hellenic Lines, flopped disastrously in the 1970s and the shipping community here has never considered a return to the sector.

Instead, like their tanker and bulk counterparts, new Greek container shipowners are playing the spot market, hiring out their ships to major liner companies on a daily basis.


The Greeks' newfound interest in container ship chartering will provide stiff competition to Germany's so-called ''doctor and dentist'' owners who have taken advantage of tax breaks to build the world's largest ''free'' container fleet. Their ships, however, are smaller than those being acquired by Greek owners.

The Asian financial crisis has whetted the Greek appetite for container ships as companies in the region are looking for buyers for their vessels to ease their financial commitments.

The most active Greek owner is Danaos Shipping, which has just snapped up seven vessels from Hanjin Shipping.

Danaos paid around $23 million each for the 1990/91-built vessels that have a capacity for 2,700 20-foot equivalent units or boxes and immediately chartered them back to the South Korean carrier for five years at a reported rate of $17,000 a day.


Last October, Danaos paid Hanjin an estimated $167 million for seven 10-year-old container ships, three of which were chartered back to the carrier. It also acquired a vessel from Japan's NYK Line with a capacity for 2,800 TEUs.

Costamare, a traditional Greek owner, has also been very active in the market for older container tonnage, paying more than $16 million for a 12-year-old, 2,528-TEUs ship from NYK, which it chartered to Zim, the Israeli carrier, for 30 months at a reported $14,000 a day. It also picked up a 3,000-TEU vessel from Maersk Line, the Danish shipowner, for $15 million to $16 million.

Greek owners are not expected to order new vessels on a speculative basis, particularly as there is a plentiful supply of secondhand tonnage coming onto the market as the established liner companies invest in giant fourth-generation vessels able to carry over 6,000 boxes.

However, Restis, a leading Greek shipping family, recently placed an order for three 2,200-TEU container ships in Taiwan, a move designed to counter the challenge by main line container carriers to its refrigerated shipping operations.

Many of the large container ships on order for Maersk, Sea-Land and P&O Nedlloyd can carry 500 refrigerated containers. These vessels will eat into the market share of conventional ''reefer'' vessels.

The Greeks are leading players in this market, with the Laskardis group controlling a fleet of 90 vessels, and Restis 24.

Restis is also actively seeking smaller secondhand container ships for its reefer business.

The Greeks are expected to become even more active in the charter market as investment tax breaks for German shipping have become much less attractive. They may also be tempted to buy new vessels as prices have sunk to 1980 levels.

However, container vessels hardly figure on the current Greek order book, which stands at 87 ships worth more than $4 billion.

Greek owners feel at home in the container ship market as it begins to resemble the tanker and bulk tramp markets they know so well, not least because supply is racing ahead of demand.

Howe Robinson, a London container ship broker, says the world fleet grew by 14 percent in 1997, creating an 8 percent oversupply.


The container industry is finally adopting the traditional response to oversupply in the tanker and bulk sectors - scrapping.

Nearly 30,000 TEUs were scrapped in the first four months of the year and the figure for the full year likely will be around 80,000 TEUs, according to industry estimates.

Costamare recently scrapped the 1973-built 2,960-TEU Nedlloyd Korrigan because it could not find work.

Taskos, another Greek owner, had a 1,844-TEU vessel idled for a couple of weeks after coming off a three-month charter to Sea-Land.