Ghost fleet

By Legal Eagle
Ghost fleet outside Singapore

Ghost fleet outside Singapore

SL has done a few posts about the ghost town that is Detroit. The goddess of fortune is fickle, and deserts towns at will. Apparently she also deserts ships.

Thousands of tankers and container ships stand in the waters outside Singapore, unchartered. With the global economic downturn, there just isn’t the same demand for shipping that there once was.

The Daily Mail reports:

So they [the ships] have been quietly retired to this equatorial backwater, to be maintained only by a handful of bored sailors. The skeleton crews are left alone to fend off the ever-present threats of piracy and collisions in the congested waters as the hulls gather rust and seaweed at what should be their busiest time of year.

Local fisherman Ah Wat, 42, who for more than 20 years has made a living fishing for prawns from his home in Sungai Rengit, says: ‘Before, there was nothing out there – just sea. Then the big ships just suddenly came one day, and every day there are more of them.

‘Some of them stay for a few weeks and then go away. But most of them just stay. You used to look Christmas from here straight over to Indonesia and see nothing but a few passing boats. Now you can no longer see the horizon.’

The size of the idle fleet becomes more palpable when the ships’ lights are switched on after sunset. From the small fishing villages that dot the coastline, a seemingly endless blaze of light stretches from one end of the horizon to another. Standing in the darkness among the palm trees and bamboo huts, as calls to prayer ring out from mosques further inland, is a surreal and strangely disorientating experience. It makes you feel as if you are adrift on a dark sea, staring at a city of light.

Ah Wat says: ‘We don’t understand why they are here. There are so many ships but no one seems to be on board. When we sail past them in our fishing boats we never see anyone. They are like real ghost ships and some people are scared of them. They believe they may bring a curse with them and that there may be bad spirits on the ships.’

Spooky. And the crazy thing is that shipyards are still manufacturing yet more ships…


  1. conrad
    Posted September 19, 2009 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    I think it’s only an impressive photo (and a worry) to people in the world that haven’t lived near big ports. Try taking the high speed ferry from Hong Kong to Macau. You’ll see a ship traffic jam for the hour it takes on the high speed ferry. If a few are idle, it’s no big deal (not unlike the excess supply of cars in car yards right now).
    Completely off topic, this picture gives a good indication of how stupid the channel deepening was in the bay in Melbourne — huge amounts of money spent so that a tiny tiny number of slightly bigger ships than before could come into central Melbourne. It’s mainly these uber ports that need that sort of thing done and where it is economically viable. I guess I shouldn’t complain, I could be living in NSW.

  2. Posted September 19, 2009 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    Finance Industry: the faith that stalled a thousand ships

  3. Rafe
    Posted September 19, 2009 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    Flew out of Singapore last week en route from Istanbul, started counting ships and stopped at 150, decided there must be hundreds. Most impressed, compared with the paltry 50 that lined up outside Newcastle (NSW) a few years ago, and a few score in the roads off Istanbul.

  4. jc
    Posted September 19, 2009 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

    Conrad: That’s nonsense about the Melbourne channel deepening story. You’re just peddling tall green stories.

    Since when does a surplus mean bigger shipping isn’t more efficient?

    Well I don’t know. I bought stocks in two shipping companies over the past couple of weeks which are starting to do well.

    DRYS and TBSI back in August.

    Global shipping is a global GDP story and I’m thinking it will pick up next year.

    Building more ships may mean replacing older less efficient ones and if you take into account the lead times it shouldn’t surprise ships are still coming off the production line.

    Let’s also keep in mind that recessions are temporary things and that this one has lasted about as long as any deep recession should have.

  5. conrad
    Posted September 19, 2009 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

    “Since when does a surplus mean bigger shipping isn’t more efficient?”
    It is more efficient. It’s the opportunity cost of building it (payed for by the taxpayer) for the 5 ships that come in every day which is the problem.

  6. Posted September 19, 2009 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

    It’s certainly a striking image, although as JC says the things are still being built thanks to the very long lead times involved. One of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen was a half-built oil tanker in a Japanese dry dock. The thing was massive.

  7. jc
    Posted September 20, 2009 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    It is more efficient. It’s the opportunity cost of building it (payed for by the taxpayer) for the 5 ships that come in every day which is the problem.

    Okay. Do you have any evidence of taxpayer supported ship builds? I honestly don’t know of any these days except military ships.

    Having said that…. If say an American buyer is purchasing Korean taxpayer subsidized ships why should he give a crapper or anyone else taking advantage of using those ships to carry cargo around.

    I don’t and neither should you. That’s really up to the Koreans.

  8. conrad
    Posted September 20, 2009 at 5:12 pm | Permalink


    I’m talking about deepening the port, not building ships.

  9. jc
    Posted September 20, 2009 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

    So am I Conrad, at least in part to your reference about the deeper channel.

    There was nothing wrong with that. To suggest otherwise is anti-development and anti science in a way.

    It’s anti-science because the anti-development green lobby in this city was peddling bullshit about how terrible it was to dig a friggen hole .

    It wasn’t. No one died save for a couple of sand crabs at the bottom.

    larger ships means fewer ships and that’s a good thing.

  10. conrad
    Posted September 21, 2009 at 5:56 am | Permalink


    that was 1 billion of taxpayers money for about 5 ships per day (not all of which would have been bigger).

    Look I’ve no doubt that larger ships and ports are good. In places like HK, for example, they dredged there too, and that’s completely understable (as can be seen from the picture in Singapore, it would be there also). But 1 billion for a ship a day? I don’t think so. Unlike some people’s delusions, Melbourne isn’t going to become a manufacturing hub of the world, and you should think of the taxpayer more next time.

  11. jc
    Posted September 21, 2009 at 11:38 am | Permalink


    Do you have a source explaining that it would cost $1 billion to dredge.

    That sounds a little on the high side to me.

  12. jc
    Posted September 21, 2009 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    We are never going to become a manufacturing hub – our workers have good conditions – but this means that our goods are expensive.

    That’s not necessarily the case, LE. Wages are but one factor in determining the cost of output. If wages were the over riding determinant you would see Malawi fully employed at 10 cents an hour, however that not happening for numerous reasons.

    Our manufacturing base has been hollowed out by the insane anti- manufacturing policies out government supports. We’re back to a re-regulated labour market, inadequate and antagonistic tax policy such as stingy depreciation allowances etc.

    There’s no reason why you can’t marry up high wages and manufacturing.

    It’s always amazed me that somewhere like China (which is supposedly based on a communist veneration of the worker) can treat its workers so goddamn badly (I think here of the Chinese miners who seem to regularly become victims of pit collapses). And there’s no apparent sense of irony from the powers that be.

    It’s a poor country and one of he distinguishing features of a poor country is high level of labour content in terms of input rather than high capital intensity. We extract coal with multi million dollar machinery while the Chinese use labour because it is so cheap.

    The more people you have doing dangerous work, the more likelihood of accidents,

  13. conrad
    Posted September 21, 2009 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    JC: Here is a description for you:

    “There’s no reason why you can’t marry up high wages and manufacturing.”

    That might be true, but it is either going to be high-tech manufacturing, or something I’ll call agricultural-manufacturing (i.e., wine etc.) where Australia has a good advantage over many places. The low-tech stuff that gets done (e.g., steel making) is already getting shipped through the deep-harbor port at Western-port.

  14. jc
    Posted September 21, 2009 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    Yes Conrad, it may have to be high tech. However the entire tax structure and labor market has to be changed to allow that to occur. In fact we’re going the opposite direction with the labor market and tax isn’t about to be changed when we’re carrying $300 billion in debt over the next 3 years.

    Frankly, Conrad, no one can guess which way manufacturing would go.


    The country would never return to the 18th century England and good workers are generally treated like prize possessions these days. Economies obviously go though stages of development.

  15. Posted September 21, 2009 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

    Haven’t you seen The Man With The Golden Gun? They’re secret spy bases.

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