Building the Largest Ship In the World, South Korea / by Alastair Wiper

The Maersk Triple E is the largest ship on the planet, the pride and joy of the largest shipping company in the world. The ship was a huge hit with the public last year when it docked in Copenhagen for a week, 50,000 people visited, tours were given and an exhibition about the boat was made. It towered above the Copenhagen skyline, and like most of the rest of the population of Copenhagen I went down for a look at this monumental machine. I didn't get on board that time - the tours sold out long before the ship arrived - so I went one better and persuaded Wired to send me to South Korea to photograph it being built, with unprecedented access to the shipyard and a completed ship.

Maersk has commissioned 20 Triple E's to be built, and I arrived on the day of the delivery and naming ceremony of the 9th of those ships, the Matz Maersk (there were 8 other Triple E's at different stages of production at the shipyard at the same time). After the champagne smashing ceremony I was expecting a tour of the ship from someone who knew it inside and out - instead I was just told "here it is - off you go!". "Er OK ... do you have a map?". "No. The engine is that way, the bridge is that way. Have fun, and make sure you aren't on board in 5 hours because the ship will be leaving for Russia." So off I went ...

That was fun. Apart from a couple of guys finishing some last-minute paint jobs, I pretty much had the whole ship to myself. First I hit the engine rooms: two massive engines power the ship, and the rooms that house them are arranged on about 5 stories at the back of the boat. Oops I mean ship, not boat. I kept saying "boat" while I was there and getting told off for it. Apparently I should actually be saying "vessel". Anyway, despite being slightly worried that I was going to get lost and end up stuck on board on the way to Vladivostok, I opened a few hatches and ended up in the middle of the vessel, the area where the containers are kept, stacked 11 levels high on the inside and 10 levels high on the outside. Did I mention the Triple E can carry 18,000 containers? The space was completely empty, and holy crap it was big. Really really big. Somehow I made it out of there and was pretty happy to find out the ship was still docked, so I made my way up to the bridge. Only 15 crew live on the ship when it is at sea, and their living quarters make up the tower that sits under the bridge. They have a small cinema and a little swimming pool (which was empty). On the bridge I met the new Captain of the Matz Maersk, Lars Peter Jensen, for whom this was just another day in the office - Captain Jensen has worked for Maersk for 42 years and  served as captain on each of the 4 previous "largest ships in the world". I made it off the ship in time and waved it on its way.

Cargo Hold
Cargo Hold

The Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering (DSME) shipyard in South Korea is the second largest shipbuilder in the world and one of the "Big Three" shipyards of South Korea, along with the Hyundai and Samsung shipyards. The shipyard, about an hour from Busan in the south of the country, employs about 46,000 people, and could reasonably be described as the worlds biggest Legoland. Smiling workers cycle around the huge shipyard as massive, abstractly over proportioned chunks of ships are craned around and set into place: the Triple E is just one small part of the output of the shipyard, as around 100 other vessels including oil rigs are in various stages of completion at the any time. The man in charge of delivering the Triple E's for Maersk is Søren Arnberg, and the Matz Maersk is the last ship he is delivering before his retirement. Søren started his career with Maersk as an engineer in 1976 and has travelled the world since, contributing to the construction of hundreds of ships. Søren is hard-boiled of Dane with a glint in his eye and a dry sense of humor, who is not impressed by much."It's just another container vessel, it's just a bit bigger" he says. "I've never been in a project with so much focus. Discovery Channel even made 6 episodes about it. It's just a ship." Søren, who is one of the stars of the Discovery Channel series, still hasn't even watched it. "What are you going to do when you get home?" I ask. "Ask my new boss" he replies, referring to his wife.

The small town of Okpo has sprung up around the shipyard, and its flashing fluorescent lights, Korean barbeques, karaoke bars and hookers cater to the thousands of Korean and foreign workers at the shipyard. It's quite a fun place to spend a couple of evenings drinking Soju, and I couldn't help making the irrelevant comparison between this place and other, less flourescent (to put it nicely) industrial towns I have visited, such as Port Talbot. The Koreans like to have fun when they finish work.

Here is the original article, as printed in Wired magazine (UK edition), September 2014:




Opko, a port in South Korea, is home to Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering, a company constructing the world’s largest model of ship – 12 at a time. “The place is mind-blowing,” says photographer Alastair Philip Wiper, who visited the shipyard for WIRED on the eve of the departure of the ninth Triple-E class container vessel, the Matz Maersk. “This is just a small part of what they’re doing. They have 46,000 people building around 100 vessels – and everywhere you look there’s some surreal part of a ship that’s just about recognisable as something that should be underwater.”

Twenty Triple-E class container ships have been commissioned by Danish shipping company Maersk Lines for delivery by 2015. The vessels will serve ports along the northern-Europe-to-Asia route, many of which have had to expand to cope with the ships’ size. “You don’t feel like you’re inside a boat, it’s more like a cathedral,” Wiper says. “Imagine this space being full of consumer goods, and think about how many there are on just one ship. Then think about how many are sailing round the world every day. It’s like trying to think about infinity.”

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