[Special news item - a modified report from SeaCo News as advised by William Higgins]
End of era as last ship sails

Sea Containers has sold its last containership, MV Puerto Cortes, marking the end of a 35-year era during which the company built, managed and operated a fleet of  total of 47 container ships.

The 1,250 teu Puerto Cortes was sold to Mediterranean Shipping Company of Geneva, who are the second largest containership company in the world. During her 22 year life with Sea Containers she covered millions of miles, circumnavigating the globe many, many times.

She is one of 15 Sea Containers'-built ships which are still operating in international waters and the last in a line that pioneered the development of containerisation during a frenetic period of construction throughout the 1970s.

"We built ships in order to drive the demand for containers," explains David Collins, general manager of the Ship Division. "At that time relatively few countries had purpose built container ports, so our early ships were designed and built with their own cranes and ramps, so they could load and unload without the need of specialised onshore facilities."

However, as containerisation took off in the 1980s and 90s, the company decided to gradually exit ship owning and focus on the core business of container leasing.

How Sea Containers pioneered a sea change in shipping

Up to the 1960s most cargo transported by sea was carried in the holds of break bulk ships. Today, almost everything is transported on- and under-deck in containerships.

This is nothing short of a transport revolution. And the story of how it happened is bound up with Sea Containers' shipbuilding past.

Although shipping lines and shippers began to realise the benefits of containers in the 1960s, the industry was slow to change and building of containerships was limited. Added to this, there were very few ports equipped with the facilities needed to handle containers, especially in the world's emerging economies.

The solution was to build more containerships, but build them so they could load and unload without specialised port facilities. These ships would be able to operate in and out any port, thus helping to spread the demand for containerisation around the world.

However, this would require a new kind of vessel, equipped with its own ramps and gantry cranes. In the early 1970s James Sherwood worked with the naval architect firm of Hart Fenton (later acquired by the group) to design the first ships of this kind, the Tarros class.

"He had already built eight standard Hustler class containerships from 1969 onwards against long term bareboat charters with Ellerman", explains David Collins, general manager of the Ship Division. "That deal enabled him to borrow the money he needed to build firstly one more Hustler class for his own use and in turn to move on to build the  Tarros class  vessels, which kick started our shipbuilding programme and, in turn, the container leasing business."

The ships were owned and managed by Sea Containers, but chartered to shipping lines in package deals which included large numbers of boxes, thus driving the company's container leasing business. 

Building continued at a frenetic pace throughout the 1970s and into the early 80s, at shipyards in the UK, Holland, Spain, Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore. The early ships cost around 1 million and carried little more than 100 containers. By 1981, when the last two Contender vessels were built, including  MV Puerto Cortes, this capacity had reached 1,250 teu. Sea Containers had built a total of 47 ships in seven different classes, from basic short sea feeder vessels to large ocean-going craft.

By the 1990s, the shipping market had caught up with containerisation. So much so that there was an oversupply of capacity and freight rates began to drop. The business case for retaining such a large fleet of ships could not be sustained and Sea Containers decided on a disposal strategy that culminated in the sale of Puerto Cortes in late 2003.

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