Greek Shipping 1945-2010: a success story of tradition, innovation, modernisation

Greece is a small, insular European nation of almost eleven million people with shipping being the oldest form of occupation of its inhabitants and a key element of Greek economic activity. What is worth noting is that in the immediate aftermath of the Greek sovereign debt crisis that began in 2008, Greek shipping has emerged once again as the healthiest and most dynamic sector of the troubled Greek economy, representing almost 8% of GDP (about 17 billion Euros), being the second largest contributor to the national economy after tourism. Nowadays, Greece has the largest merchant fleet in the world forming the backbone of world shipping.

The Greek shipowners and shipping companies hold today more than 15% of world’s tonnage which is by far the largest international merchant fleet the world has ever witnessed. In terms of ship categories, Greece ranks first in both tankers and dry bulk carriers, fourth in the number of containers, and fourth in other ships. The Greek fleet flies a variety of flags, however many Greek shipowners have gradually returned to Greece and Greek flag following the changes to the legislative framework governing their operations and the improvement of infrastructure. As a result one fourth of the Greek-owned vessels fly the Greek flag and the remainder mainly ‘flags of convenience,’ or ‘open registries’ as they are more tactfully called today (flags of Panama, Malta, Liberia, Marshall Islands, Cyprus, Bahamas, just to name a few them) (Metaxas, 1985)

At this point we have to mention that during the nineteenth and twentieth century the choice of flag used by merchant vessels under Greek control has been highly opportunistic or better to say it was the result of pure business and commercial expediency and interest. Hence the term ‘Greek- owned’ or ‘Greek controlled’ rather than ‘Greek’ fleet. This distinction is more than semantic: members of nineteenth- and twentieth-century commercial and ship owning communities who lived all their lives abroad and were Russian, British, Ottoman, Italian, Austrian or American subjects retained their ‘Greekness,’ which was pivotal for their success and preserved by tight kinship and social circles. The successful progress of Greek-owned shipping was partly based on the fact that this identity guaranteed access to the informal ‘club’ of Greek merchants and ship owners abroad.

The extraordinary growth of the Greek ship-operating industry in the postwar era can be easily demonstrated. In 1938, just before the outbreak of the World War II it consisted of 1.8 million gross registered tons; by 1949 it had risen to 2.4 million grt, and by 1976 it stood at a massive 50.6 million grt, Greece vying with Japan to be the world’s largest shipowner. According to the London-based Greek Shipping Cooperation Committee in 2009 Greek shipowners controlled a fleet of 4,161 vessels over 1,000 grt, representing 8.2% of the world’s total number of vessels in service and on order, 15.2% of the world fleet carrying capacity, or 13.22% in gross tonnage. Moreover, the Greek Merchant Fleet, totalling about 40% of the EU’s fleet, ranks first among all European Union Member States.

Thus, what is really interesting with the case of Greece is that a small insular country, often amidst wars or disasters, wins the battle of the global seaborne trade, operating the biggest fleet in the world surpassing economic giants like Japan, United States or even China. However, what is even more interesting and rather exceptional is the fact that the Greek shipping industry succeeded in coming out of all the challenges and risks of international shipping market during the second half of the twentieth century even stronger and more dynamic, at least until the nowadays global financial crisis. Given these facts, some important questions arise that need to be answered, in order to understand the course of development and operation of Greek shipping. However, the key question is the following: why and how the Greek shipowners succeeded in occupying the leading position in world shipping hierarchy?

The answer according to our opinion should be sought not in the ‘maritime nature’ of the Greek race or in the fact that ‘the sea is in the blood of the Greeks,’ but in the basic business principles and values that have governed the Greek shipping industry ever since the 19th century, which may be condensed in the following five words: tradition, innovation, modernization, entrepreneurial freedom. To be more specific, two are the main issues that merit further attention and study: (a) Greek shipowners’ business strategies, and (b) Greek state’s approach for the commercial shipping sector.

A. Greek shipowners’ success in the postwar period

The Greek-owned fleet was throughout its modern history (since nineteenth century) an international fleet, which participated in international maritime transport as a provider of transportation services to third parties. This characteristic determined its development and its consequent specialization. The Greek shipowners participated in the market on competitive terms and their activities were absolutely dependent on the fluctuations and the general trends in international maritime trade. The leading role of the Greek-owned fleet in the world shipping industry is associated with the business philosophy and the culture of Greek shipowners and the way they manage their enterprises, with the organizational model of their business, and of their strategies.

What is interesting is a common business strategy of all the Greek-owned shipping firms whether in Piraeus, London, New York or Singapore. The first leg of the business strategy concerned the organization and structure of the companies and the second leg their entrepreneurial practices. The creation of a worldwide network of offices and agencies, the staffing of the business on the principle of kinship and common place of origin, access to international shipping centres, the specialization in transporting bulk cargoes, the use of various flags, the employment of Greek crews, the direct access to the charterers, the traditional model of operating secondhand ships and the timeless “buy low, sell high” pattern, have been the basic axes of the business strategy of Greek shipowners during the twentieth century. Specialization in the management of ships and participation in freight markets on the basis of accumulated know-how regarding the effective technical and commercial exploitation of ships constitute to this day the continuing competitive advantage of the Greek-owned businesses (Harlaftis & Theotokas, 2009, p. 11). And this is because Greek shipowners have realized that for a shipping business active in the international freight markets of bulk shipping, the provision of quality services at low cost was a precondition sine qua non for their competitiveness and their success. Actually, the basic and main strategy of Greek-owned shipping businesses lies in the participation in the market on the basis of competitive costs, a strategy that in theory is described as ‘cost leadership’ (Porter, 1985).

To be more specific, the first factor that has contributed to the spectacular success of the Greek shipping industry during the postwar era (after 1945) was the fact that the new blood in Greek ship owning were mostly non-traditional shipowners, who in 1958 formed half of the Greek-owned shipping firms. Those that entered the business after the mid-1960 were the so-called ‘Piraeus Greeks,’ because, in contrast to the London Greeks, they operated from the developing port of Piraeus. In fact, within twenty years Piraeus grew from a parochial port to a world-class maritime centre operating the world’s largest fleet (Harlaftis, 1993, p. 24-39).

The organization and structure of the new shipping firms closely followed the pattern of the traditional shipowners. The typical Piraeus shipping firm was an agency of various Panamanian, Liberian or other ‘foreign’ companies, and other branch offices were opened in London or elsewhere. Family members or close friends were recruited to man the offices. In this way kinship, island and ethnic ties ensured the cohesion of the international Greek maritime network. The unofficial but exclusive club of these cosmopolitan entrepreneurs clung to its Greek character; ‘Greekness’, beyond any cultural or patriotic aspirations, was extremely important for their economic survival. It provided access to all the expertise of shipping: market information, chartering, sales and purchase, shipbuilding, repairing, scrapping, financing, and insurance and P & I clubs. It also provided consultancy from older and wiser members and information about the activities of the most successful members of the group. Imitation proved an extremely useful ‘rule-of-thumb’ (Harlaftis 1993, p. 269-80).

Apart from common organizational and structural patterns, the second most important part of the business strategy of the Greek maritime network had to do with entrepreneurial methods. The first is to achieve access to the main world maritime markets, London and New York; the second, to specialize in bulk cargoes; the third, a particular pattern of sales and purchases; and the fourth, to continue the high productivity of Greek crews.

The second factor that has contributed to the success of the Greeks was the kind of transport services they offered and the type of cargoes they carried: in other words, their specialization in tramp fishing and bulk cargoes. Greeks developed this tradition in the nineteenth century by forming commercial and maritime networks to carry the bulk trades from the eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea to the western Mediterranean and northern Europe. Tramp shipping provided the flexibility to carry any country’s cargoes and not to be dependent on the economic health of a particular nation, as fleets like the British were. In this way, when the First World War presented the opportunity the Greeks moved into the Atlantic and in the interwar period became the second most important tramp shipping fleet. In the post-1945 era, they transferred their activities from the Atlantic to the Pacific and Indian Oceans according to existing demand. In this way, the same ship owning family that had carried grain from the Black Sea to Marseilles, London and Antwerp in the early twentieth century, hauled grain from Buenos Aires to London in the interwar period, and from Australia, the US, Argentina to China and India in the postwar era (after WWII). Involvement in tramp shipping also enabled the Greeks to adjust to new demands in international markets, whether this involved new types of cargoes or ships. For example, when there was increased demand for oil, Greeks brought the appropriate ships to carry it; when there was increased demand for the five main bulk cargoes, Greeks brought bulk carriers to transport them (Harlaftis 1993, p. 280-1).

The third main factor in the successful business strategy of the Greeks is a systematic method of sales and purchases, as already mentioned. This can be described simply as ‘buy when everybody sells, and sell when everybody buys’. This has been described as the ‘anticyclical method of Greek ship-owners’ who, following this golden and timeless rule, buy when freight rates and ship rates are low and sell when they are high (Thanopoulou, 2007, 37; Thanopoulou, 1996, p. 209-20). This method started during the transition from sail to steam became clearer in the 1930’s crisis when the Greek-owned fleet, unlike the merchant marines of other traditional maritime nations, exhibited a positive rate of growth (Harlaftis, 1993, 281). It continued during the post-1945 period when medium and small ship-owners followed the methods (and the instinct) of their big and most successful colleagues. In fact, there are many small shipowners who use shipping exactly as a stock exchange, entering the market when prices of ships are low and leaving when prices rise. The other side of this method involves the kinds of ships they buy. Greeks are known to be major purchasers of secondhand vessels that they keep in good repair and operate as long as possible. In fact, purchasing secondhand vessels has been the backbone for a large segment of Greek shipowners (Thanopoulou, 1994, 133-65).

The fourth and last factor concerns the efficiency with which this second hand tonnage is operated to keep fixed and variable costs low. There is still the belief among officers and ship-owners, whether in Piraeus, London or New York, that ‘Greek seamen are the best in the world.’ And it is this way of thinking, closely related to Greek seafaring traditions and inherited by young officers from the older generations that have lead to a productivity that cannot only be measured in numbers. As recently as 1980 almost 40 per cent of Greek seamen came from the islands and two-thirds of the crews on Greek-owned vessels were Greek (Harlaftis 1993, p. 282).

It is really worth noting that in the postwar era, Greek shipowners have profited from purchasing and operating secondhand vessels, with the most famous example being the acquisitions of U.S. Liberty ships following World War II by Greek entrepreneurs such as Onassis, Goulandris, and Niarchos (Elphick, 2001, p. 401). Entry into the shipping industry has been eased by the availability of secondhand cargo ships in the market and the willingness of Greek entrepreneurs to take risks. This historical model of business continued for decades alongside a culture of family-owned ventures that kept Greek shipping companies small and the industry diverse. About two-thirds of the current Greek shipping entities own only one to four ships each. Due to the dominant business model of operating secondhand ships, the Greek maritime fleet’s average age has hovered above that of the world fleet, but instead of considering the high age of its tonnage as a weakness, Greek shipping companies actually face lower fixed cost obligations. This cost advantage is realized through lower payments for recent purchases or no capital obligations for the owners of old, fixed-cost free vessels (Thanopoulou, 2007, p. 36).

However, and despite the fact that the Greek shipowners have traditionally done well with operating older ships, they had no difficulty, by the turn of the new millennium, to aim at the modernization of their fleet by purchasing brand new vessels. One main reason for fleet modernization is the advent of ‘quality shipping’ following the Exxon Valdez incident in 1989, along with the subsequent passage of environmental regulations outlining ship specifications. Passage of the 1990 U.S. Oil Pollution Act was followed by similar measures in the international arena with the swift 1992 adoption of amendments 13G and 13F to MARPOL4 (Thanopoulou, 2007, p. 39). New ship construction specifications and a timetable for ship retirement were set in addition to the requirement of compulsory certification for management procedures onboard vessels and ashore (Thanopoulou, 2007, p. 39).

Though the wave of new regulations affected shipping companies worldwide, Greek-controlled shipping was hit especially hard because of its preference for old tonnage. Throughout the past two decades, Greek ship owners have made substantial efforts to modernize their fleets either through new buildings or secondhand acquisitions of newer ships. In regards to secondhand acquisitions, Greek ship owners used their experience in timing transactions to modernize their fleets by acquiring ships when the prices were depressed in the late 1990s, and by restraining their participation when markets started their ascent in 2003 (Thanopoulou, 2007, p. 44; Harlaftis & Theotokas, 2009, p. 68-75). The astute participation in the secondhand market by the Greek ship owners is reflected in a snapshot of the market in the early months of 2006 when the average age of Greek secondhand purchases was calculated to be 9 years while the average age of all ships sold was 15 years (Thanopoulou, 2007, p. 44). The cumulative effect of this strategy is apparent in the latest data provided by Murphy in 2011: the Greek-controlled fleet average ship age is currently 1.8 years below that of the world fleet, standing at 11 years, down from 20.3 years in 2000 (Murphy, 2011).

Another factor that encouraged Greek fleet modernization was the favorable financial conditions during the first decade of the twenty-first century. Banks, awash with liquidity and looking for higher returns, saw the shipping companies as attractive additions to their loan portfolios. At the same time, increased demand for shipping services worldwide led to higher shipping rates, which not only gave Greek shipping companies an influx of cash flow but also encouraged further expansion of their fleet capacities. Increasingly high secondhand prices coupled with a low interest rate environment led to new building orders, which also outpaced the rate of scrapping for old ships, thereby further speeding up the Greek fleet modernization (Kamarudin, 2012, p. 97-8).

B. Greek government’s approach for the commercial shipping sector

A significant number of Greek shipowners argue that they developed their fleets with very little help from the Greek state, and could therefore survive in spite of it. However, according to the analysis of Gelina Harlaftis it is undoubtedly true that the majority of the shipping companies could have survived independently of the Greek government, it is also beyond doubt that Greek-owned merchant shipping would never have increased as much as it did in the period after the World War II without the support of the Greek state (Harlaftis, 1993, p. 181). However, the assistance of the state to Greek shipping must be evaluated in context. Even the most important intervention in the sector in the last 60 years, the state guarantee for the purchase of 100 Liberties from the United States by Greek owners just after World War II, could be seen more as the result of relentless efforts of owners to persuade the Greek government than of a clear vision of the state about the sector. What the Greek state did for shipping was to support it essentially in absentia, adopting a reactive – rather than proactive – shipping policy focused on attracting tonnage to the national register (Thanopoulou, 2007, 24-5). Furthermore, Helen Thanopoulou argues that the fact that Greek-owned shipping continued to grow, even amidst the deep maritime crisis which followed the first oil shock (1970s), was essentially the result of the successful specialisation and of the patterns of investment that had been followed by Greek owners, whose strategies embodied the shipping competitiveness blueprint that prevailed in modern bulk shipping in the second half of the 20th century (Thanopoulou, 2007, 25).

However, despite the fact that many Greek maritime historians and analysts have insisted on the absence of any systematic and direct support of the Greek shipping industry (Thanopoulou, 1994, p. 294) from the Greek shipowners’ point of view, the advantageous tax regime for the Greek shipping registry since the 1950s has been a great competitive advantage to them. Greek shipping industry tax regime is one of the most favorable in the world. In essence, the Greek Constitution guarantees the right of capital mobility for shipping companies in order to reduce the level of uncertainty associated with shipping investments and encourage Greek ship owners to repatriate their capital into the domestic Greek economy. A main provision in the current tax regime is the enforcement of a tonnage tax (tax based on carrying capacity of ships) in lieu of a tax on profits for ships on the Greek shipping registry. By specifying ships in the Greek shipping registry, this tax regime also applies to foreign shipping businesses that are based in Greece, thus encouraging the development of the Greek shipping cluster in Piraeus and other major Greek ports. All in all, the Greek government employs a very successful hands-off regulatory approach for the commercial shipping sector.

Panos Kapetanakis
GMI Post-Doctoral Research Fellow, Maritime Historian

Britain’s Close Call: New Book Reassesses the Defeat of Napoleon

The defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte by Britain is a far greater achievement than has ever been acknowledged, according to a new book by a Greenwich academic.

In Britain against Napoleon: the organization of victory, Professor Roger Knight points out that a British victory was by no means certain. With France a greater power, and the whole of Europe conquered by Bonaparte, Britain had to use army, navy, politics and all its financial strength to turn the tide until the final battle at Waterloo in 1815.

Controversially, he also downplays the role of Lord Nelson and the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. “We have been blinded by the myth of Nelson,” he says. “In fact, the war continued for another decade, and Napoleon looked unbeatable until 1812. People don’t understand what a struggle Great Britain faced, and just how great an achievement victory was.”

Professor Knight, visiting professor at the university’s Greenwich Maritime Institute, has a background in maritime history and is the author of the prize-winning biography of Nelson, The Pursuit of Victory. However, in his latest book he examines the war from a ‘360 degree’ perspective for the first time, looking beyond the familiar exploits to show how the whole British population worked for victory, from farmers and manufacturers to an early Home Guard.

“Contrary to the British myth, it was never inevitable that Napoleon would lose,” he says. “Britain’s success was the most extraordinary story.”

Britain against Napoleon has its launch at Somerset House today (Monday 21 October) and is published by Penguin.

Professor Knight’s career as museum curator and historian has spanned more than forty years comprising curatorial and research roles at the National Maritime Museum and subsequently at the university, where he combines teaching with writing about naval history.

Story by Public Relations, University of Greenwich



Veteran Scottish steamer recces vast new London Gateway port and deftly dodges 1.5 kilotons of High Explosive

On Sunday 29 September some of GMI’s staff and alumni  took the opportunity to explore the River Thames from the City to Southend and the mouth of the River Medway, including a unique close reconnaissance of the new London Gateway port which is due to open in November 2013, aboard the Glasgow-based steamer Waverley.

Waverley, completed in 1947,  spends her summers cruising on the Firth of Clyde into areas of spectacular natural beauty. She also spends spring and autumn sailing in other areas including  south-west England (Dorset and Devon),  the Bristol Channel, the south coast of England and the Thames estuary.  Since 1974 she has been owned by a registered charity (Waverley Steam Navigation Company) on behalf of the Paddle Steamer Preservation Society (PSPS), itself a charity, and operated by Waverley Excursions Ltd, a subsidiary of WSN. She is described as the ‘World’s last Sea-Going Paddle Steamer’, and sometimes cruises out of protected estuarine waters and across more open seas, including up the east coast to Harwich, Ipswich, Great Yarmouth and Southwold. She sailed across the Channel to commemorate the sinking of her predecessor, built in 1899, during the 1940  Dunkirk evacuation.  Being a paddle steamer she is extremely stable, but she only has one giant engine, which means she cannot turn very tightly by contra-rotating the paddles.  But she is manoeuvrable enough, even for the relatively constricted waters of the Pool of London.

The Paddle Steamer (PS) Waverley
The Paddle Steamer (PS) Waverley

And the engine is open for all to see, her immaculate, slightly greased metallic silver connecting rods, carrying the energy from the pistons, pumping rhythmically to turn the crankshaft in a stimulating display of raw power.

On that special Sunday she left Tower pier at 10.00 hrs sharp with about 200 passengers aboard.  She sailed west, towards London Bridge, swung round above the site of the old Roman  bridge, and headed out under Tower Bridge which opened for her. The Waverley cruise has become something of a GMI tradition over the last five years, but the prospect of a close encounter the new mega-port on the verge of completion made this year’s excursion particularly timely.  Aboard were Chris Bellamy, on his first Waverley trip accompanied by Jos McDiarmid, a friend specialising in antique prints and a qualified London tour guide, the usual suspect Dr David Hilling, a world expert on ports, Richard Scott, and graduates and continuing students from the Maritime History MA including John Allan,  John Mann and his son, Robert Milburn, Tim Carter, his partner Anne and friend, and Peter Jarrett, plus a representative of the new Maritime Security MSc, Leo Balk, who is a former Commander in the US Navy.

The weather was overcast and quite stormy, and on the wider river there was a strong wind which made using maps challenging, but blew any cobwebs away. After Tower Bridge, Brunel’s Thames Tunnel and Canary Wharf, Greenwich came into view.

Member of general public points out world-famous GMI offices
Member of general public points out world-famous GMI offices

Soon afterwards there was a good view of the Emirates AirLine cable car, which is a spectacular sight but might be more useful if it went somewhere, either to the

Excel Exhibition Centre, further east,  or directly to London City Airport.  But maybe that was just a ‘bridge’ too far.

‘Sail on, silver girl’.  Waverley passes under a bridge over troubled waters…
‘Sail on, silver girl’. Waverley passes under a bridge over troubled waters…

Then came the Thames Barrier, designed to defend the Capital against the power of the sea.  One of the barriers was obligingly raised in ‘defensive’  mode.  The Thames  Barrier,  which has been operational since 1982, has a finite life, and will need to be replaced at some point, but a March 2009 study suggested that it  would last decades longer than the date of 2030 when its designers thought it would have to be replaced. In part, this was because they had apparently overestimated the effects of climate change.  The barrier was designed with an allowance for sea level rise of 8mm per year until 2030, which has not been realised in the intervening years.  The Environment Agency have no plans to replace it before 2070 and a decision on its replacement, which might be further downstream, therefore needs to be made in the middle of the century.

Thames Barrier with one of the  flood gates raised in ‘defensive’ mode
Thames Barrier with one of the flood gates raised in ‘defensive’ mode

The route so far can be traced on the Google Earth photo, below. The next part of the trip was more revealing.  The Thames Barrier is not the only London flood defence by any means.  Two kilometres from the eastern end of London City Airport, ad Ordnance Survey grid 456817, on the left of the river (to Port), we saw the imposing and intimidating outline of the Barking Creek barrier, which can be dropped as a giant guillotine to seal Barking Creek against the same tidal surges from the North Sea that the Thames Barrier is designed to thwart.

First part of Waverley’s journey, 10.00-11.00 hrs. Google Earth, adapted and annotated by author
First part of Waverley’s journey, 10.00-11.00 hrs.
Google Earth, adapted and annotated by author
The Barking Creek Barrier (north side of the river Thames)
The Barking Creek Barrier (north side of the river Thames)

And then, further on, on the ‘right bank’ of the river (always seen from the direction of flow, remember…), the Dartford Creek (River Darent) tidal barrier. OS grid 541778:

Dartford (River Darent) Tidal Barrier (south side of the river Thames)
Dartford (River Darent) Tidal Barrier (south side of the river Thames)

Four kilometres beyond this point the Waverley passed under the Queen Elizabeth II (QEII) bridge, which carries the southbound carriageway of the M25 orbital road southward.  The northbound carriageway passes through the Dartford tunnel a little before. The central point of the bridge is at OS grid 570764.

The best shot of the bridge is probably taken from further east, as shown below.  The traffic is therefore passing southward, to the left, with the south bank on the left and the north on the right of the picture.  The overall position of the bridge can be seen in the adapted Google Earth view, which follows.


QEII Bridge, seen from the east, with the south bank on the left,  Traffic passing from right to left.
QEII Bridge, seen from the east, with the south bank on the left, Traffic passing from right to left.
View of the QEII Bridge and the approaches to Tilbury. Google Earth, adapted and annotated by author
View of the QEII Bridge and the approaches to Tilbury.
Google Earth, adapted and annotated by author

After Tilbury docks, Waverley passed Tilbury Fort, skulking behind its earthworks, and very difficiult to see (OS grid .  After the Dutch raided the Medway in 1667, King Charles II ordered a fort built here to defend London.  It was designed  on the latest lines, following the schemes of the great French military Engineer Sebastian le Prestre de Vauban.  It was built by a Dutchman, Sir Bernard de Gomme, and its fearful pentagonal geometry incororated the latest ideas in 17th century fortification.  Originally the fort, designed to withstand a serious assult from the landward side, was combined with batteries along the northern shore of the river, as shown in the artist’s impression of it in the eighteenth century, below.

Tilbury  Fort as it would have looked in the 18th century (Alan Sorrell)
Tilbury Fort as it would have looked in the 18th century (Alan Sorrell)
Tilbury Fort today, with the high tide filling the moat
Tilbury Fort today, with the high tide filling the moat

Beyond Tilbury Fort we rounded the bend in the river, heading north again into Lower Hope Reach.  The new Thames Gateway port, buyilt on the site of the former oil refinery at Shellhaven, which closed in 1999, came into view. As you can see from the air view, the new  port is vast.  Its shape is quite distinctive, and it is easy to reconcile the artist’s impression of the completed port with the air view.

London Gateway. Google Earth, adapted and annotated by author
London Gateway.
Google Earth, adapted and annotated by author
Approaching London gateway from the west.
Approaching London gateway from the west.

The Waverley moved close in to the north bank to give us a good view.  As we slipped past huge excavations were still underway. The technique used to construct the quay wall which will also support the tracks which carry the huge cranes is not  new but has not been much used in the UK previously. The shoreline was build out extensively, so that the quay wall could be installed below ‘dry land’ The fill behind the quay wall then becomes the fill under the quayside areas.

The start (west end) of the London Gateway  quay wall
The start (west end) of the London Gateway quay wall

The two lines of quay wall also double as the support for the enormous quayside container cranes so the capping beams have the necessary rails and infrastructure cast into them. Once the quay wall, anchor wall and tie bars are complete, the fill in front of the quay wall is dredged out leaving the quayside complete.  The cranes run on tracks that are 35 metres (115 feet!) apart, giving an idea of their enormous size.  The first phase of the quayside wall in 1,250 metres long.

First, fill it in…
First, fill it in…  
Then, dig it out… As above, adapted by author.
Then, dig it out…
As above, adapted by author.

One ship was already moored at the port, although it does not formally open until November. And two weeks before, on 16 September, it was reported that THE 10,062-TEU Zim Rotterdam, had diverted from Felixstowe to DP World’s London Gateway port for repairs after a fire aboard had consumed 20 containers. Industry sources said Felixstowe would not accept Zim Rotterdam because the vessel would tie up berthing space for a prolonged period, but Felixstowe officials were not available for comment. Instead, it was offered a haven at  London Gateway, which will not open until later this year.  As a result of an unplanned delay, London Gateway port agreed to accommodate the vessel at short notice. Three weeks before, ago, the master had reported a fire in 20 of its containers while en route from Malaysia to Djibouti.  The AIS vessel monitoring system showed that Zim Rotterdam was located off Cherbourg when the new London Gateway destination was determined.

As we passed the new mega-port the size of the cranes on their 35-metre wide track could easily be appreciated.

London Gateway, 29 September 2013
London Gateway, 29 September 2013

London Gateway comprises a large new deep-water port, which will be able to handle the biggest container ships, as well as one of Europe’s largest logistics parks, providing effective access (by road and railways) to London and the rest of mainland UK.  The complex will make use of modern technology to increase productivity and reduce costs for shipping lines and the logistics industries. It will significantly increase the ability of the Port of London   to handle modern container shipping, and help meet the growing demand for container handling at Britain’s ports.

The Red Ensign flies over London Gateway, which will make the Port of London a world-leading terminal for container shipping
The Red Ensign flies over London Gateway, which will make the Port of London a world-leading terminal for container shipping

DP World, a Dubai-based company,  received Government approval in May 2007 for the development of London Gateway. The proposals were identified by former prime Minister Gordon Brown  as one of the four economic hubs essential for the regeneration of the Thames Gateway.  The 2007-10 financial crisis created problems for DP World’s owners Dubai World.   However, in January 2010, DP World was given the go-ahead for construction of the port

London Gateway port will include a 2,700-metre-long container quay, with a fully developed capacity of 3.5 million TEU a year.  It is close to  the major shipping lanes serving north west Europe and will increase national deep-sea port capacity for the UK.  At present, the ports of Felixstowe and Southampton are  the first- and second-largest ports by container traffic in the UK, respectively, with the Port of London third.  There are a number of other smaller container terminals nearby, but the development will dramatically increase the capabilities of the Port of London in handling modern container shipping.    DP World has said that high-quality architecture, sustainability, and high levels of security and management will be key features of the park and will create an attractive environment for occupiers

DP World is planning to invest over £1.5bn to develop the project over a ten to 15-  year development period. It says (well, it would, wouldn’t it?) that London Gateway will deliver about 12,000 new direct jobs, benefit the local and regional economy, and assist the government’s regeneration initiative. In addition, there will be over 30,000 indirect and induced jobs.

Our intelligence mission complete, and by this time very windblown, we repaired below.  The Waverley served an excellent Sunday roast, and  the stability of the ship was noticeable as  she ploughed through a very choppy Thames Estuary towards Southend.  Some of the passengers disembarked there, but the Captain warned that he could not guarantee to get back at 17.00 hrs to pick them up.  At sea, no plan always survives contact with the elements.  We then headed  south, into the estuary of the Medway.

Google Earth, adapted and annotated by the author
Google Earth, adapted and annotated by the author

I was still below when we passed by the wreck of the Richard Montgomery,  a US Liberty ship that had gone down in 1944 with several thousand tonnes of ordnance on board. On 20 August 1944, it dragged anchor and ran aground on a sandbank around 250 metres from the Medway approach Channel, in a depth of 24 feet (7.3 m) of water. Liberty ships of this type – ‘general dry cargo’ –  had an average draught of 28 ft (8.5 m).  However,  the Montgomery was trimmed to a draught of 31 ft (9.4 m). As the tide went down, the ship broke its back on sand banks near the Isle of Sheppey 1.5 miles (2.5 km) from Sheerness and 5 miles (8 km) from Southend. The salvage operation  began on 23 August 1944, using the ship’s own cargo handling equipment. But the next day the ship’s hull had cracked open, causing the bow end to flood. Attemp[ts to salvage the lethal cargo continued until 25 September, when the ship was finally abandoned. Subsequently, the ship broke into two separate parts, roughly in the middle.  Some 1500 ‘short tons’ (the standard US measure for weight of  ordnance), or 1400 tonnes, were left on board.

The Richard Montgomery is a potential hazard to developments in the Thames Estuary.  The map below shows the position of the wreck vis-à-vis some planned developments – the various estuary airports beloved of, among others, London Mayor Boris Johnson.

Map showing position of the Richard Montgomery wreck and suggested airport developments:  1. Cliffe; 2. Grain (Thames Hub); 3. Foulness; 4. Off the Isle of Sheppey; 5. Shivering Sands (‘Boris Island’).
Map showing position of the Richard Montgomery wreck and suggested airport developments: 1. Cliffe; 2. Grain (Thames Hub); 3. Foulness; 4. Off the Isle of Sheppey; 5. Shivering Sands (‘Boris Island’).

In 1970 the BBC reported that the 1500 short tons – 1.5 kilotons – of explosives could, if detonated produce a 3,000-metre high column of water and a five metre tidal wave that would engulf Sheerness (population then 20,000).  By 2012 estimates of its possible effect were less sensational, but a one metre tidal wave might still result.  However, in 1998 The Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) had said that as the fuzes would probably have been flooded for many years and the sensitive compounds were all soluble in water,‘ this is no longer considered to be a significant hazard.’

At least the wreck is clearly visible.  Given the weather conditions, Waverley did not pass very far down the Medway, just past the Swale, the stretch of water which separates the Isle of Sheppey from the mainland.  She got as s far as  Saltpan reach, south of the jetties and power station in OS grid square  8674, before turning round.

On the way back the Waverley passed east of the wreck site, before turning west.  The Richard Montgomery’s three masts are clearly visible.

Passing the Richard Montgomery, with Southend visible behind
Passing the Richard Montgomery, with Southend visible behind

The light was now beginning to fade and we repaired below for a while longer.  The Waverley did make it back to Southend, picked up some passengers, and then  headed back into London.  As darkness fell around 19.00 we headed back on deck and  the lights came on.  The imaginative use of lighting can utterly transform a landscape.  The Thames Barrier and to O2 were cleverly illuminated.  Beyond the O2, from the Royal Observatory, the Greenwich Meridian, the centre of the world, dividing east from west, was marked by a green laser pointing slightly upwards into the sky.  Unfortunately it would have needed a long exposure to capture this beam of light, and I missed the shot.  But an idea of the effects can be obtained from the kaleidoscope of colour bathing the O2, below.

O2, or alien spacecraft?
O2, or alien spacecraft?

The Waverley passed on, under Tower Bridge, and docked at 20.45.  It was a great day, and a marvellous opportunity to behold  London’s new great port.

I could not help wondering what would really happen if what remained of the Richard Montgomery’s cargo were detonated all in one go.  I am sure that Maybe a future Mayor of London, inaugurating an estuarine airport, might have the opportunity to find out.  Mind you, I am puzzled by the need to build vast concrete runways.  Why do we not go back to sea planes and flying boats, which could land and take off in this vast area with far less infrastructure investment.  And bring back more civilised travel into the bargain. But a future Mayor might still want to press the button, just for fun.

Hey!  That gives me an idea…

Chris Bellamy



Unless otherwise stated, all photographs by the author.
























Programme of Free Evening Seminars in Maritime Policy, Security and History

Greenwich Maritime Institute holds a range of events, seminars and conferences including the popular Public Research Seminar Series which are held in Greenwich at monthly intervals.

Experts are invited to give a presentation on areas that relate to the three broad themes that the GMI specialises in: Maritime History, Maritime Policy and Maritime Security. Presentations are then followed by questions from the audience. Anyone is welcome to attend these free seminars although advance booking is required via

This year we are pleased to announce a variety of topics such as:

  • Licensing Private Maritime Security Companies
  • Navy, Identity & Leisure in 20th Century Britain
  • Loss of the RB Angus
  • 1412 – The Year China Discovered the World
  • Designing New Vessels for 21st Century Tidal Thames
  • Human Rights Considerations in the Maritime Industry
  • China’s Ship Recycling


GMI Research Seminar Series 2013-14 – Download the brochure in PDF format