WHITHER THE MALACCAMAX?

WHITHER THE MALACCAMAX?

I can recall some months back, writing a column on the advent of the Malaccamax container ship. That Goliath of steel, with cell guides and open deck spaces sufficient to carry up to 18,000 containers so efficiently as to make its presence felt in year-end financials, remains to be ordered.

However, in my naivet of this container shipping business, I questioned the feasibility of such a project, and reasoned that the real costs of such a vast floating hulk would financially hurt even the cleverest of shipowners.Based on what I had been told, and on the limited knowledge I have about such things, I made sure everyone knew I didn't believe ships of half that size would be built.

And so, it is with head hung low this week, that I have to admit that when I claimed the 18,000-TEU container ship was a mere myth, I may have been shortsighted. Emphasis on the word 'may.'

That is because this week P&O Nedlloyd, one of the world's most progressive shipping lines, said it could be operating ships up to 10,000-TEU capacity by 2003.

And if that happens, then it could be assumed that the capacity ceiling could conceivably reach the Malaccamax level before long, and the technical know-how of Dutch professor who developed the Malaccamax design may not be so questionable after all.

But like most Brits, I never take things on face value. My ancestors never did, so why should I? Was I really wrong? I'm not so sure. I have that niggling feeling that Robert Woods, who moved into Tim Harris's top role at P&O Nedlloyd headquarters in London some months back, may have been prompted into saying something his technical gurus may find disturbing.

Backed up with record third-quarter financial results this year, the P&O Nedlloyd folks were understandably enthusiastic about the future. The Anglo-Dutch company posted operating profits of $75 million in the three months to Sept. 30, a $59 million improvement on the year-earlier period and a $31 million gain on the second quarter. P&O Nedlloyd is doing well at last. The hard slog is over, and the so-called benefits of their 1997 are finally starting to be realized, thanks to a continuing strong market for container carriers. The company is on track to do what it said it always would do.

But despite all that good news, to say P&O Nedlloyd could be operating ships up to 10,000-TEU capacity by 2003 may be a stretch.

Here's why. The only shipyards capable of building such ships are in Korea, Japan and Denmark. Of course, it is hard to envisage A.P. Moller's Odense Steel shipyard building for the competition, so it really comes down to the Asian yards.

The only shipyard to openly market blueprint plans for ships around the 10,000-TEU size is Samsung Heavy Industries.

Talking to the marketing executives in Korea last week, it was clear while there are some fine designs for ships around 9,800 TEUs from the Koje Shipyard of Samsung, as to the level of interest from shipowners, the official word was, 'Not yet.'

'No, there is nothing concrete at the moment. We've had some interest in our new design, but that's as far as it goes,' said one company official.

Yards in Korea and Japan are currently short of capacity for container ship projects. A series of five 6,200-TEU ships for NYK Line on order at Samsung means any megaship capacity for container vessel is taken up there until mid-2003. Samsung's move into the skyrocketing VLCC tanker sector also ensures that building the occasional prefabricated boxship hull structure in one dock and finishing the building process elsewhere is out of the question.

Of course, one of the amusing things about this life is that we all try to outdo each other. That's what competitiveness is all about. It's a well-known fact that P&O Nedlloyd and Maersk Sealand are competitors, even though they're partners in the multi-million dollar Inttra portal venture. Maersk Sealand has big ships as well, and what one does, the other will do shortly thereafter.

Personally, I cannot believe the 18,000-, 15,000-, 12,000- or even 10,000-TEU container ship will be built in the near future. Sure, steel hulls can be extended to accept more steel boxes. Ports can get bigger cranes, and dredging companies can suck and grab the sands from the seabed to help it all happen.

But, in the end it really comes down to operational costs, that wonderful cost per TEU for operating a steel hull of slot space. In simple terms, I am always open to criticism, and I'm British, so I'm used to it. But if P&O Nedlloyd operates 10,000-TEU ships by 2003, and the Malaccamax becomes reality, I will personally apologize in these columns for my misunderstandings of this industry. But don't hold your breath.

Paul Richardson can be reached at 011-44-208-942-1993 or xdd80@dial.pipex.com. Richardson is the editor of PR News Service, an e-mail news service covering container shipping.