Five Generations of Containerships 

The first containerships were modified bulk vessels or tankers that could transport up 1,000 TEUs. Indeed, the container was at the beginning of the 1960s an experimental transport technology and modifying existing ships proved out to be the least expensive solution. These ships were carrying onboard cranes. Once the container was massively adopted at the beginning of the 1970s, the construction of the first containerships (second generation) entirely dedicated for handling containers started. They carry the cellular denomination since they are composed of cells lodging containers up to stacks of 12. Cranes were removed from the ship design so more containers could be carried. Containership speeds have peaked to an average 20-25 knots and it is unlikely that speeds will increase due to energy consumption. 

Economies of scale pushed the construction of larger containerships in the 1980s until the Panamax (1985) and Post Panamax (1988) standards, transporting between 4,000 and 5,000 TEUs were reached. The fifth generation (Post Panamax Plus) are now in service and will be able to transport between 5,000 and 8,000 TEUs. A limited number of harbours are able to handle them, because these ships will require deep water ports and highly efficient, but costly, shore infrastructures.
Depending on the teu size and hull dimensions, container vessels can be divided into the following main groups or classes. However, adjacent groups will overlap.
  • Small Feeder <1,000 teu
  • Feeder 1,000-2,500 teu
  • Panamax 2,500-4,500/5,000 teu
  • Post-Panamax 4,500/5,000-10,000 teu
  • Suezmax 10,000-12,000 teu
  • Post-Suezmax >12,000 teu 
Small Feeder 

The small feeder container vessels are normally applied for short sea container transportation. The beam of the small feeders is, in general, less than 23 m. 


The feeder container vessels greater than 1,000 teu are normally applied for feeding the very large container vessels, but are also servicing markets and areas where the demand for large container vessels is too low. The beam of the feeders is, in general, 23-30 m.Panamax 

Until 1988, the hull dimensions of the largest container ships, the so-called Panamax-size vessels, were limited by the length and breadth of the lock chambers of the Panama Canal, i.e. a max. ship breadth (beam) of 32.3 m, a max. overall ship length of 294.1 m (965 ft), and a max. draught of 12.0 m  (39.5 ft) for passing through the Canal. The corresponding cargo capacity was between 4,500 and 5,000 teu. These max. ship dimensions are also valid for passenger ships, but for other ships the maximum length is 289.6 m (950 ft). However, it should be noted that, for example, for bulk carriers and tankers, the term Panamax-size is defined as 32.2/32.3 m (106 ft) breadth, an overall length of 225.0 m for bulk carriers and 228.6 m (750 ft) for tankers, and no more than 12.0 m (39.5 ft) draught. The reason for the smaller length used for these ship types is that a large part of the world’s harbours and corresponding facilities are based on these two lengths,respectively. 


In 1988, the first container ship was built with a breadth of more than 32.3 m. This was the first post-Panamax container ship. The largest vessels on order with a capacity of approx. 9,600 teu have exceeded the Panamax beam by approx. 13 m. 


It is probable that Ultra Large Container Ships (ULCS) carrying some 12,000 teu containers can be expected. This ship size, with a breadth of 50 m / 57 m, and corresponding max. draught of 16.4 m /14.4 m for passing through the Suez Canal, may just meet the present Suezmax size.


It is pssible that in about 10 years the ULCS will perhaps be as big as 18,000 teu, with a ship breadth of 60 m and a max. draught of 21 m. Today, this ship size would be classified as a post-Suezmax ship, as the cross-section of the ship is too big for the present Suez Canal. It is claimed that the transportation cost per container for such a big ship may be about 30% lower than that of a typical 5,000-6,000 teu container vessel of today.

A draught of 21 m is the maximum permissible draught through the Malacca Strait. The name “Malaccamax” has therefore been used. 

With the intended increase of the cross- section breadth and depth of the Suez Canal over the coming ten years, the 18,000 teu container ship will also be able to pass the Suez Canal. On the other hand, a future container ship with a draught of 21 m would require existing harbours to be dredged. Today, only the harbours of Singapore and Rotterdam are deep enough.

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