The Disruption Report #8: When It Comes to Container Ships, Big Is Not Better


One of the questions I keep getting is: “Why do containers keep falling overboard?” According to authorities, the problem stems from the new, super-sized container ships. These ships carry ten thousand plus containers at a time. As a result, container ship operators stack them in towers, some over 200 feet in height.

Add ocean storms, and you have container stacks that become destabilized due to “parametric rolling.”  I was not familiar with the term. I did some research and found that the phenomenon only occurs on container ships.  Here is how Maritime Insight defines the term:

The new container ships coming to the market have large bow flare and wide beam making it streamlined with the hull. As the wave crest travels along the hull the bow comes down. The combination of buoyancy and wave excitation forces push the ship to the other side. The similar action takes place as the bow goes down in the next wave cycle, which leads to heavy rolling up to 30 degree in a few cycles. This type of rolling is known as Parametric rolling.

So, the next time a stack of containers falls into the sea, blame it on bigger container ships and parametric rolling.


The more I read and speak with experts, the more I understand that the new, giant container ships are a significant part of the problem. Axios has a great article on the subject, “The Suez Canal is clear, but shipping is still broken.”

The article’s author, Felix Salmon, makes the case that ships are so big that they are sluggish when it comes to planning and reacting. He points out that due to their size, they “…run on schedules that are worked out sometimes years in advance.” Therefore, they do well in times of predictability but become unmoored when things go off the rails (I know that is a railroad metaphor, but I can’t think of a good nautical one).

Another problem occurs when a super-sized container ship takes too long to unload. Similar to when your plane can’t pull into its gate because another plane is still occupying it, container ships are forced to wait until a spot opens up for them to unload. Those who run the port are so desperate to get more ships in for unloading that they will force a super-sized vessel to leave without being reloaded. Much-needed goods end up left behind.

And that’s not all. Super-sized container ships are slow. Once they run behind, they can’t speed up and catch up.

Big, it appears, at least in the case of container ships, is definitely not better.

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