Analysis: As ships ballooned in size, worst-case scenario was flagged up by organisations such as OECD


A satellite image shows the cargo ship MV Ever Given stuck in the Suez canal.
Big ships require more time to salvage and more tugboats and dredgers than what has been required in the past with smaller vessels. Photograph: Maxar Technologies/AP

Authorities have blamed strong winds, possible technical faults or human error for the stranding of the Ever Given in the Suez canal.

But the running aground of the “megaship” – which salvage teams continued to try to free on Sunday as preparations were made for the possible removal of some of its containers – and the disruption of more than 10% of global trade, has been in the making for years longer according to analysts, who say an accident of this magnitude was foreseeable and warnings were ignored.

Over the past decade, out of the sight of most consumers, the world’s container ships have been quietly ballooning in size. A class of vessels that carried a maximum of about 5,000 shipping containers in 2000 has doubled in capacity every few years since, with dozens of megaships now traversing the ocean laden with upwards of 20,000 boxes.

Container ships have become huge fast, especially over the past decade. Other than the result of technological advances, analysts say the trend is a hangover from the high oil prices of the 2000s – which led shipping outfits to seek to maximise economies of scale – and the low-interest rates that followed the 2009 financial crash, which allowed companies to borrow the vast sums required to build vessels as long as skyscrapers are high.

When the trend of ever-growing ships received popular attention, it was often through colourful press releases and awestruck news stories lauding the size of the vessels, the many Eiffel Towers’ worth of steel they required and the profits they promised the world’s shipping giants.