Breakbulk's Future Fleet.
Breakbulk carriers are catching up with changing shipper demand by adding larger ships equipped with cranes capable of lifting heavier loads for construction projects and other cargoes. ?The average breakbulk operator has read the market well,? Dirk Visser, senior shipping consultant at Netherlands-based Dynamar and managing editor of DynaLiners, wrote in a recent analysis of breakbulk operators and their markets.
During the last 30 years, the breakbulk market has undergone fundamental change. Instead of traditional multi-deck freighters carrying a variety of non-containerized cargo, the industry increasingly is dominated by larger ships with box-shaped holds for unitized cargo and heavy-lift gear for oversize shipments.
?The days are gone that breakbulk ships were perceived as outdated, over-aged, weary vessels operated by obscure companies outside the maritime limelight,? the Dynamar report said.
Like container ship lines, breakbulk operators are adding capacity rapidly. Dynamar"s report, ?Breakbulk: Operators, Fleets, Markets,? said vessels ordered by the 25 largest breakbulk operators are equivalent to 34 percent of their existing fleet. Including smaller operators, the order book is 25 percent of the existing fleet.
Those numbers sound like a recipe for overcapacity until you consider the number of old breakbulk ships nearing a date with the scrapyard. Dynamar said current ship orders equal only 71 percent of the deadweight capacity of vessels 25 years or older. Many large project shippers insist their cargo be carried in vessels less than 15 years old.
However, new breakbulk ships ? with box-shaped holds, large hatch covers, increased lifting capacity and, in some cases, flexible "tweendecks and open-hatch designs ? are more productive than the older vessels they"re replacing. That will help keep capacity in line with demand, Dynamar said.
Perhaps the most notable change in the new ships is their increased heavy-lift capacity ? a response to demand for shipments of large components for construction, expansion or refurbishment of power plants, refineries and other projects.
A few years ago, a ship with 50-ton-capacity cranes was considered a heavy lifter. Today that threshold is close to 250 tons, the Dynamar report noted. The top 25 breakbulk carriers now have more than 40 ships that can handle loads of 500 to 750 tons, and their order book includes 115 vessels with lifting capacities of 500 to 1,400 tons.
Most of the largest breakbulk operators have several vessels on order. Gearbulk, whose fleet capacity of 2.5 million deadweight tons is more than twice that of second-ranked Cosco Shipping, has ordered 13 ships with 806,000-dwt. capacity.
Breakbulk cargo took a hit from the recession last year. Volumes and rates fell 20 to 30 percent or more as demand declined, financing dried up and operators of container, bulk and roll-on, roll-off cargoes tried to horn in on breakbulk"s traditional niche. ?2009 will not go down in the history books as breakbulk shipping"s most enjoyable year,? the report said.
However, breakbulk carriers weathered the recession better than operators of container ships or bulk carriers. Much breakbulk cargo consists of multiyear shipments for large construction projects that can"t be started or stopped quickly. Some of those projects were slowed, but few were canceled.
?Although the world economic bust is felt, the positive mid- to long-term fundamentals of the breakbulk industry have not changed,? Dynamar said. ?Carriers serving the heavy-lift and project cargoes are . . . not as exposed to the vagaries of consumer demand. As the worldwide economy picks up, they will continue to be in demand as delayed projects come on line again, and there will always be cargo that does not fit in the box.?