Monday, January 26, 2009

The Shipping Industry Supersizes Container Carriers

I grew up as a boy in a seaside town, in a quiet street that was a few blocks away from one of the oldest ports in that part of the world. Roman coins are still found from time to time in Chennai (or Madras as the city was called when I was born and grew up, or Poompuhar if you want the original name for the region and Mylai for the specific town that later became one of the largest cities in India) and the Dutch, the British, the Danish, the Portuguese and french all came there seeking footholds in what was an ancient trading center for seafarers. The people of the region had themselves reached out and settled in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia and other countries as we know them today, forming many of the vibrant Tamil and Telugu Chettiar communities around South and South East Asia. Other communities followed the Chettiar traders over the centuries and did equally well. I remember buying a fifty paise ticket to go to the port of Madras on Saturdays and walking around the docks in the old days. Most sailors were friendly and would get us boys some or the other goodies that they ahd brought back on their voyages to other lands - goodies like imported chocolate and Coca Cola which had been banned by the socialist government in India back then. There were steam ships and diesel ones and we learned to tell the difference from how they were named - SS for the Steam Ships and MV for the diesel ones in those not too old days. I even travelled to Sri Lanka in the TSS Irwin from Rameswaram to Talaimannar as a boy, a voyage that I have some lovely memories of even today.

And that brings me to this post - an article in the Wall Street Journal talks about some of the world's largest shipping companies investing to build huge container carriers: While shipping is a very cost efficient method of carrying goods from one part of the world to another, sadly, today, there are no emissions regulations on ships anywhere. This is equally true of the huge oil tankers and container carriers as well as of small private yachts that are used by people for recreation in the world. While I do think that the businesses that are building these monster ships would try and use the most advanced technologies possible to make them cheap in operation, it would be nice if this were a time when governments around the world led by the various industries bodies that work in shipping push for greater efficiency by regulation and force the industry to adapt more green practices.

I personally think that this is also a good time to look at building advanced sailships especially to carry valuable agricultural produce in small quantities. There are French companies that deliver wine to European destinations in sail ships - I can't see why tea clippers cannot be built these days. The old tea clippers were faster than the fastest steam ships of their time. There is no reason why new ones that are even faster, larger and modern competition to the diesel ships cannot be designed. I did not see any sailships when I was a boy, but, boy, what would I not give to see them back before I die!

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