Hitching A Ride On The World's Biggest Cargo Ship : Parallels Launched in August, the Maersk McKinney Moller is the first of a new class of megaships. It's 20 stories high and a quarter-mile long. NPR's Jackie Northam hopped on board in Poland.

Hitching A Ride On The World's Biggest Cargo Ship

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The global economy, of course, means that much, even most of what we see around us has arrived in the U.S. from another part of the world in container ships. Nowadays these ships are enormous, hauling thousands of containers carrying products that entertain us, transport us, clothe us, fill our offices and homes. And now there is a new class of ships - ships that dwarf all others.

NPR's Jackie Northam took a ride one on one.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: I started my journey at the famed Gdansk shipyard - home of Poland's Solidarity movement in the 1980s. It was nearly midnight when I walked up the gangway of the Maersk McKinney Moller, the largest container ship in the world. Our departure was already delayed by 12 hours while Polish longshoremen finished loading and lashing down thousands of containers carrying anything from electronic goods to furniture.


NORTHAM: Throughout the night you could hear the gigantic cranes hoist up containers - many weighing up to 25 tons - and stack them on this massive vessel.

Siddhesh Naik, the ship's third officer, says visitors are always surprised by the sheer size of the vessel.

SIDDHESH NAIK: The first thing everyone asks when they come here on this ship is where is the elevator, because you need to climb first two floors just to come to the main deck.

NORTHAM: Everything about this ship is big. It sits more than 20 stories high and is four football fields long. It can hold more than 18,000 20-foot containers - that's about double what many of the other mega-ships out there carry. Each link or lug in its anchor chain weighs about 500 pounds. It can carry more than two million bicycles, or more than 100 million pairs of shoes. And if you put each container on board end to end, the line would stretch for about 70 miles. It's a big ship.


NORTHAM: But the size of the Maersk McKinney Moller can also present challenges, especially getting in and out of port. A Polish pilot, brought on board in Gdansk, has to slowly squeeze past three nearby piers.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

NORTHAM: I'm standing on the bridge of the Maersk McKinney Moller and we've just pushed off from the deepwater port in Gdansk. There's a lot of action here in the bridge as the pilot turns this enormous ship around. You can see three tugboats helping the ship as it moves. But it's an extremely tight fit. In front of me, there's a pier, to the left of the ship is a pier and to right of the ship is a pier. But it's a process that can be complicated by both wind and current.

CAPTAIN JES MEINERTZ: (Foreign language spoken)

NORTHAM: The Danish captain sips a cup of coffee as he watches the pilot deftly navigates the ship into the open waters of the Baltic Sea. Both men were trained on simulators how to handle this particular vessel. The Maersk McKinney Moller was only launched last summer. It's the first of a new class of megaships, known as the Triple E. The vessel has that new car feel to it - everything is bright and clean. And the crew is still familiarizing itself with all the new bells and levers and whistles.

MEINERTZ: And we can go to zero seven five.


NORTHAM: The Maersk McKinney Moller shuttles between ports in Asia and Northern Europe, the world's busiest trade route. No U.S. port is able to handle a ship this size. Several European ports improved their facilities, dredging their waterways and upgrading the size of their cranes in order to unload containers from this super wide vessel. And ship's Captain Jes Meinertz says the Chinese are constructing new terminals at an amazing rate.

MEINERTZ: They are just building more and more terminals, bigger and bigger terminals. I mean you have so much more gear available when you come alongside than in some of the European ports.

NORTHAM: It was in 2010 - well into the global recession - that Maersk Lines made the decision to create this new class of megaship. Michael Heimann, senior portfolio manager at Maersk Line, was part of the development team.

MICHAEL HEIMANN: We were actually tasked with having come up with a design which was at least 30 percent more efficient than other big container ships. Already there, we needed to try and think in different ways than what we had seen in ship design before.


NORTHAM: It's here, in the bowels of the ship where the Maersk team broke with tradition. It made changes to the engine size and propellers, and improved ways to capture energy to more efficiently power the vessel. The ship moves two to three knots slower than others, which cuts both CO2 emissions and fuel costs - the ships biggest expense - by at least half. But they also made fundamental changes to the shape of the vessel, in order to get as many containers on board as possible. Its economy of scale, says Heimann.

HEIMANN: Obviously, the more containers that we can put on, the more containers that have to split the cost of the fuel on.

NORTHAM: Richard Meade, with Lloyd's List, a shipping industry news provider, says that's a great argument but only if the ship is fully loaded.

RICHARD MEADE: A ship like the Maersk McKinney Moller is a fantastic advance for the industry, as long as it is full. If it is half empty, it is probably one of the most inefficient ships ever built. And this is the great gamble.

NORTHAM: It's a gamble Maersk is willing to make, based on the belief that global trade will bounce back from the recession. The company ordered 20 of the Triple E vessels from South Korean shipbuilder Daewoo, at $185 million apiece. Other shipping companies have also placed orders for similar sized vessels.


NORTHAM: Our next stop is Aarhus, Denmark where I depart. After that, the Maersk McKinney Moller has a couple other European stops before heading back to Asia.

Jackie Northam, NPR News.


MONTAGNE: And tomorrow, Jackie is back in the U.S. with a story about how the energy boom here is breathing new life into America's long-struggling shipyards.

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