General Cargo Ships Becoming Obsolete

A new report from international shipping consultants, Westinform, suggests that changing liner trades are making many general cargo vessels obsolete.

This is not just because of the usual problems associated with age, such as loss of performance and increasing maintenance and repair, but because the design of the conventional liner has had to change in order to adapt itself to the current trading conditions.

The report — "A Review of World Conference Liner Fleets"— reveals that 40 percent of operating vessels are more than 15 years old, and 15 percent over 20 years old. This could explain why new building orders in today's extremely depressed shipbuilding market have featured general cargo ships so frequently.

The conventional liner, Westinform points out, has become the "clearing house" for residual commodities not covered by specialpurpose vessels. Vessel choice and management, therefore, calls for more exacting skills and experience than where the commodity is more consistent and the ports of call are fewer. In particular, the operator requires short-term flexibility and long-term adaptability.

Flexibility to cope with the variety of type, form and stowage of the commodities; adaptability to the fundamental changes in requirements, e.g., liquid or refrigerated cargoes.

The Westinform study shows that the amount of space provided for liquids and/or refrigerated cargoes is a straightforward example of specialized tonnage taking an increasing share of the trade, thereby reducing the requirement in the conventional liner. However, despite competition from specialized chemical tankers and independent "wild" reefers, the cargo requirement of liquid and refrigerated capacity in conventional liner vessels has not entirely disappeared but simply reduced. Accordingly, these vessels have adapted to the changing trading conditions.

The provision for heavy-lift equipment is another trend identified in the report—a logical development with developing countries committed to broadening their industrial base. Major oil exporters, along with Brazil, are obvious examples of ambitious programs requiring extensive imports of heavy capital plant and equipment.

However, Westinform points out that the provision of heavy lift affects other aspects of the vessels not always compatible with the current trends in design, and there is a growing fleet of specialist heavy-lift vessels.

Such developments are minor compared to the impact of containerization.

The most dramatic consequence for conventional liners has been the reduction in the newbuilding deliveries since the late 1960s. A less obvious consequence that emerges from Westinform's report might best be understood in terms of changing the concept of cargo stowage from horizontal to vertical. While containerization has not proved as cost effective as the first studies suggested, it was developed in response to the high handling costs of general cargo in the port and in-shore. Included in these handling costs was the manual operation of shifting the cargo into the side of the cargo holds, once it had been dropped down through the relatively narrow hatches in the center of the vessel.

In providing both the uniform shape and a measure of protection for the commodity, containerization allows vertical stacking, even for those commodities whose irregular shape or fragility had precluded it in the past, and accordingly containerships were typified by large, wide hatches.

Westinform graphs demonstrate that conventional liner designs are incorporating larger and wider hatches, a trend which has been long established but has accelerated rapidly since the mid-1960s.

Thus, conventional liners have adapted to containerization by becoming more competitive in one of the areas where containerships claim an advantage. This competitiveness is extending to the carriage of containers over and above the small number that virtually any vessel can take on deck. These vessels can serve on routes where the flow of containers is not sufficient to justify the employment of containerships, and of course smooth the transition to the introduction of a full container service. This development is exemplified by the modern "multipurpose" cargo ships designed, such as the Cammell Laird's StaFF 20, where full holds can be given over to containers as required.

"A Review of the World Conference Liner Fleets" is the second in the Westinform Fleet Surveys (following the examination of the 50-80,000-dwt tankers issued in 1976). Westinform has made a detailed examination of the current vessels of various Conference members in terms of numbers, capacity, flag, age and the changes in vessel design (including length, beam, draft, deadweight, r e f r i g e r a t e d capacity, hatch width and area, type of engine, etc.). The report will be issued to all subscribers to the Westinform Shipping Report Series, and individual copies can be obtained at $50 each (£25 in the U.K.), including postage, from The Westinform Service, 9 Cork Street, London W1X 1PD.

Other stories from July 1977 issue

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