Story: Shipping

Page 9. The container revolution

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In the 1960s and 1970s loading methods on liner shipping switched to roll-on, roll-off (RORO), mainly in the trans-Tasman and coastal trade, and containers. These brought massive changes. In the old days ships lay alongside for weeks while wharfies laboriously made up sling loads of cargo, 2–5 tonnes at a time. Containers enabled shippers to fill standard-sized steel boxes any time, anywhere, often using cheap off-wharf labour. The pre-assembling of cargo brought costs down – ships only make money when under way – and ship turnaround times shortened. In 1971 the container ship Columbus New Zealand took eight days and eight hours to load and discharge 9,775 tons of cargo; a conventional ship would have taken 35 days.

Not everything went into containers. Less valuable cargo switched to bulk carriers – log ships, ore carriers, bulk cement carriers and oil tankers. In the mid- to late 1970s entire fleets of conventional ships disappeared. The Union Steam Ship Company absorbed most of the coastal carriers.

The drive for greater economy

Now that ships no longer faced weeks alongside the wharf, it became feasible to build them bigger, offering further economies of scale. In the Europe trade in the 1970s, therefore, 45,000-ton container vessels replaced 10,000-ton ships. The next generation would be even bigger. The Mairangi Bay (1978) could carry 2,400 TEU – 20-foot container equivalent units. Her 21st-century replacement, the P&O Nedlloyd Mairangi, carried 4,100. But as ships got bigger, crews got smaller. The Union Rotoiti, built in 1977 for operation on the Tasman by 42 people, was running on the same route in 2004 as the Rotoiti with just 24 crew.

In the 1980s and 1990s increased mechanisation and labour and management reforms further reduced the turnaround time. In Tauranga in the 1980s it took 44 workers 12 or 13 days to load 27,000 cubic metres of logs. By 1996 it took only four workers 30 hours, working around the clock. In the 2010s container ships often had fixed-day sailings and guaranteed berths, and even the largest might arrive and depart on the same day.


The ‘red duster’, the flag of the British merchant marine, no longer dominates New Zealand’s waterfronts. Shipping registered in the British Commonwealth (mainly United Kingdom) accounted for 55% of all arrivals in 1965. By the 2000s they were rare visitors, and even British-owned ships were likely to be registered with ‘flag of convenience’ nations such as Panama or Liberia, whose share of shipping registry soared from 6.2% in 1953 to 47.8% in 1998.

End of the old lines

Containerisation was a new word, and with it came businesslike branding for container ships such as ACT 1 and ACT 2 (named after the Associated Container Transportation company). In contrast, the names from an earlier era were often more evocative – Shamrock, Breeze, Star of Canada.

Globalisation and the collapse of traditional shipping groups caused many lines to disappear altogether. Others merged – Europe trade heavyweight P&O with Nedlloyd, Danish carrier Maersk with America’s Sealand. New Zealand’s box trades became dominated by Maersk and the Swiss-owned Mediterranean Shipping Company, which shuffled ships worldwide to meet seasonal demand. In the 2010s container ships no longer sailed from New Zealand to Europe direct – they fed into hobbing ports in Australia or South-East Asia.

How to cite this page:

Gavin McLean, 'Shipping - The container revolution', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 April 2024)

Story by Gavin McLean, published 12 Jun 2006, updated 1 Jan 2016