With a greater proportion of containership fleet capacity now able to transit the canal, it is appropriate for the box ship fleet to be considered in a new light, and to be broken down into a new range of more relevant sectors, according to London's Clarksons Research Services.
The ability for a containership to transit the Panama Canal has long been a defining vessel characteristic, with the emergence of a distinct "panamax" sector above 3,000 TEU, comprising vessels with a maximum beam of 32.3 metres.
But rapid upsizing has meant that the fleet capacity of ships in sizes panamax and below has been dwarfed by the growing numbers of "post-panamax" ships in recent years. By the start of July 2016, 63 per cent of boxship capacity was unable to transit the old locks of the Panama Canal.
The recent completion of the canal's third set of locks now enables many more box ships to transit, with only 15 per cent of fleet capacity unable to pass through according to current official dimension restrictions. This change has led to the need to segment the box ship fleet in a fresh way.
At the start of July, the sub-3,000 TEU sector comprised four million TEU, accounting for 20 per cent of total fleet capacity (with 11 per cent of capacity on order accounted for by this size range).
In the 3,000- to 7,999-TEU "intermediate" sizes, all ships are now able to transit the canal, up from less than 50 per cent previously, and a significant 36 per cent of fleet capacity (but only four per cent of the order book) falls into these sectors.
The 8,000- to 11,999-TEU sector, totalling five million TEU (25 per cent of the fleet) comprises "neo- panamaxes" likely to form part of the initial wave of upsizing on routes through the canal. Many ships sized 12,000- to 14,999 TEU are also seen as "neo-panamaxes".
While only 59 ships (of up to 13,500 TEU depending on the specific design) of the 192 ships in this sector are able to transit based on official limits, another 39 fall so close to these limits that they are likely to be able to transit.
A further 50 ships in this sector would also be able to pass through if the beam restriction was raised to the already mooted 51 metres.
Finally, ships sized 15,000+ TEU have notably distinct designs from vessels in the 12-14,999 TEU sector, and are clearly too large to transit the current locks. While there were only 62 ships of this size in the fleet at the start of July (six per cent of fleet capacity), 40 per cent of capacity on order falls into this size range.
So, the recent expansion of the Panama Canal locks and the continued rapid upsizing of the fleet in recent years have both brought about the need for high-level segmentation of the containership fleet to evolve as well. As market dynamics continue to be affected by the recent developments, it's clear that size matters and that the containership industry has reached a significant milestone.