Liner shipping is reducing sailing speeds due to environmental concerns and changing markets Ship’s crew

As the COVID-19 pandemic recedes, global shipping is experiencing a shift in operations.

Line operators increased average sailing speeds by up to 4% during the pandemic to accommodate heavy demand and port congestion, according to BIMCO, the world’s largest shipping association. In contrast, the first quarter of 2023 saw a 4% year-on-year decline in average sailing speed to 13.8 knots, with a 10% decline forecast through 2025, BIMCO reports.

Changes in sailing speed can affect transport capacity while reducing both bunker fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Slow steaming, originally introduced in response to the financial crisis, reduces sailing speed on main routes by up to 20%.

Although the traditional faster direction of propulsion remains, average sailing speeds have decreased significantly. Larger ships on intercontinental routes continue to travel faster than smaller ships on intraregional routes, but these trends may change. In 2019, the largest ships sailed an average of 2.6 knots faster than the smallest ships, a difference that narrowed to 1.8 knots in Q1 2022 and 1.6 knots in Q1 2023, according to BIMCO. As a result, average sailing speed weighted by ships’ TEU capacity fell 6% year-on-year in the first quarter of 2023, while simple average sailing speed fell just 4% year-on-year, it said. This indicates a faster decrease in supply than sailing speed.

Also the speed difference between headhaul and backhaul direction could be reduced in the future. Compliance with the Energy Efficiency Existing Ship Index (EEXI) has led some ships to incorporate Engine Power Limitations (EPL), reducing their top speed. In order to maintain a buffer between maximum speed and planned speed that allows recovery from port or weather delays, the planned speed must be reduced. This will primarily affect the faster head-haul direction and reduce the speed differential between directions, BIMCO says. The Carbon Intensity Indicator (CII) regulation and overall greenhouse gas emissions targets may also lead to further reductions in sailing speed.

While improved port congestion and slower return rates to the Asia-Pacific region may contribute to the lower average sailing speed, BIMCO believes this trend foreshadows the future of global shipping. As highlighted in the Container Market Overview & Outlook reports for 2022, sailing speeds could drop by 10% by 2025.

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