Building big ships

Ships across all sectors seem to be sizing up. Last year, MSC Oscar won the title of the largest container ship in the world, with the ability to hold more than 19,000 containers. This year, cruise ship Harmony of the Seas, achieved the ‘world’s largest cruise ship’ record. And next year, we’ll see the first of two of the largest aircraft carriers to be built in the UK - the HMS Queen Elizabeth - arrive in Portsmouth. Whether it’s to deliver more trade, bolster defence or simply enable more holidaymakers to travel the world, container ships, naval ships and cruise ships all seem to be getting bigger.

To put the scale of these ships into perspective, here are some vital statistics:

  Harmony of the Seas MSC Oscar Queen Elizabeth Aircraft Carriers
Length 362m 395m 280m
Width 66m 59m 70m
Population 8,880 35 crew (but capacity for 19,224 standard containers) 679 permanent crew but up to 1,600 full complement when air elements are embarked
Weight 227,000 tonnes 193,000 tonnes 65,000 tonnes
Speed 22 knots 22.8 knots 25+ knots


Of course, each of these ships serves completely different purposes and as such, their design varies drastically. The time it takes between cutting the first steel and taking their maiden voyage also varies considerably because of the way each ship is constructed and funded.

MSC OscarImage credit: ptnphoto /

MSC Oscar was built and launched at Daewoo’s shipyard in South Korea, in only 11 months. The ship features a unique design incorporating a wide beam and use of torsion box and hatch coaming plates constructed from steel plates up to 100mm thick. Its U-shape double hull structure and bulbous bow increases its fuel efficiency.

Despite being shorter than the CSCL Globe, MSC Oscar is classed as the largest container ship due to its capacity to hold 19,224 containers – 124 more than the Globe. But why is large capacity so significant?

Container ships have been growing in size for some time now. Since 1968, container-carrying capacity has increased by approximately 1,200%. Twenty years ago, the Regina Mærsk exceeded the previous TEU (twenty-foot equivalent units) limit with a capacity of 6,400 TEU. Ten years later, the Emma Mærsk was more than 11,000 TEU and today, MSC Oscar is more than 19,000.

Clearly the main benefit of higher capacity container ships is that they can carry more goods and are therefore more efficient and more economical. Despite the capacity and weight of today’s giant container ships, they are actually considered to be relatively energy efficient. The Globe, for example, has an engine which automatically adjusts fuel consumption based on the ship’s speed and sea conditions and is quoted as using a fifth less fuel per container than a vessel carrying 10,000 containers.

The drawback of such sizeable vessels is that some ports and waterways cannot accommodate ships of this size. Only recently, the third incident in the newly widened Panama Canal took place, when a Chinese container ship hit a canal wall and damaged its hull.

So will container ships continue to expand in size?

Richard Cookson, Department Manager – Maritime, Matchtech, doesn’t think so:

“Whilst they have the benefit of transporting more goods more efficiently, mega-vessels such as MSC Oscar cost a huge amount to build and have a knock on cost effect to ports, who have to alter their infrastructure to accommodate them. Combine this with the slowdown in trade demand, a higher insurance cost (the bigger the vessel, the more it carries, the more associated risk) as well as environmental regulations, the age of the mega-vessel container ships may well be over before it had a chance to really grow.”

“Instead of a continued focus on building bigger ships, I believe the shipping industry will focus on the fuel efficiency and speed of these vessels as well as the techniques used for stacking the containers. Cargo operators and vessel planners play crucial roles in the effective running of these ships and their job becomes all the more complex with these vast vessels.”

Royal Caribbean cruise shipImage credit: Ruth Peterkin /

Coming in at a heavier weight and with a capacity of housing almost 9,000 people, the Harmony of the Seas is another mega maritime creation. It took 2,500 workers at the Chantiers de l’Atlantique shipyard to create the cruise ship, across a period of around three and a half years.

With a width of 66 metres, Harmony of the Seas is the widest cruise ship ever built and takes the title of ‘largest cruise ship in the world’ from sister ships Oasis and Allure.

Not only is she the largest cruise ship in the world, but the Harmony of the Seas has a number of firsts to her name. One such novel feature is the tallest slide at sea, Ultimate Abyss, which is 10 stories high. Another, which is also a feature of sister ship Oasis of the Seas, is the Rising Tide Bar - an open-air pod that moves between three decks. Other attractions include a giant climbing wall, surf simulator and floating Jacuzzis, amongst many other dining and entertainment delights.

Could future cruise ships get even bigger? Richard’s stance is ‘why not?’:

“If demand for cruise holidays continues at the pace we have seen over the last 5 years, then the contest to build and operate the biggest ship will carry on between the large cruise operators. Currently, Royal Caribbean dominates this arena and their position looks fairly fixed with their future order book. One thing that could slow this growth is the operators’ ability to recruit the thousands of shore and sea-based personnel they need to operate these mammoth ships.”

In the defence industry, equally impressive feats of engineering are taking place with the continued construction of the UK’s largest aircraft carriers, the first of which is due to come into service in 2020. The first of the two Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers will arrive into her homeport of Portsmouth next year and her size is already being accommodated for with significant upgrades to the dockyard and harbour. As the carriers will displace 65,000 tonnes of water, over three million cubic metres of clay, sand and gravel is being removed from over two miles of Portsmouth Harbour to make way for their arrival.

Aside from their size, the carriers will also impress with their high tech, integrated mission system and will be the first aircraft carriers in the world to incorporate a twin-island design, which separates command of the ship from flying operations.

Several ship building facilities are helping to deliver the carriers, as well as hundreds of companies in the supply chain so the project is not only a necessary and exciting milestone for the Royal Navy but these significant ships are also having a massive impact on the jobs market. The Queen Elizabeth Class programme has directly created 2,500 engineering jobs and is supporting 10,000 jobs across the UK.

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