Ghost fleet of container ships off Singapore

Tony sez, "These haunting images of the gigantic 'ghost fleet' of ships parked off the coast of Singapore are one more gripping visualization of the economic state of affairs the world over."

Here, on a sleepy stretch of shoreline at the far end of Asia, is surely the biggest and most secretive gathering of ships in maritime history. Their numbers are equivalent to the entire British and American navies combined; their tonnage is far greater. Container ships, bulk carriers, oil tankers - all should be steaming fully laden between China, Britain, Europe and the US, stocking camera shops, PC Worlds and Argos depots ahead of the retail pandemonium of 2009. But their water has been stolen.

They are a powerful and tangible representation of the hurricanes that have been wrought by the global economic crisis; an iron curtain drawn along the coastline of the southern edge of Malaysia's rural Johor state, 50 miles east of Singapore harbour.

Revealed: The ghost fleet of the recession (Thanks, Tony!)


  1. You should be able to scrounge up a giant horde of squalid zealots to go with them, soon enough, for the full raft experience.

  2. Is there a detailed map of ghost fleet around the world? In the ferry from Harwich to Denmark, close to the UK there was a bunch of cargos waiting, I wonder if it was the same thing.

    Any infos on that?

  3. Is it just me, or does The Fine Article Cory linked to have the roles of Cause and Effect reversed?

    The biggest and most secretive gathering of ships in maritime history lies at anchor east of Singapore. Never before photographed, it is bigger than the U.S. and British navies combined but has no crew, no cargo and no destination – and is why your Christmas stocking may be on the light side this year

    Uhm, my Christmas stocking may be light, but it won’t be because these ships aren’t carrying cargo, instead these ships aren’t carrying cargo because Santa won’t be buying as much this year… The lack of consumers is impacting the cargo industry, not the reverse…

    Also, how secretive is this “fleet,” really? Ignorance of the realities of the cargo industry does not constitute a secret. D-Day was a pretty big secret, and it had a whole lot of ships as I recall:

    The operation was the largest amphibious invasion of all time, with 175,000[4] troops landing on 6 June 1944. 195,700[5] Allied naval and merchant navy personnel in over 5,000[4] ships were involved. The invasion required the transport of soldiers and materiel from the United Kingdom by troop-laden aircraft and ships, the assault landings, air support, naval interdiction of the English Channel and naval fire-support. The landings took place along a 50-mile (80 km) stretch of the Normandy coast divided into five sectors: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword.

    (From Wikipedia)

    As a final note, from a global warming perspective, isn’t this fabulous? One-eighth of the worlds cargo ships are not moving, cutting world-wide fuel consumption by cargo ships by 12%, not to mention all the idle factories not belching out greenhouse gasses, and no more emissions from all the tractor trailors that aren’t shuttling cargo containers around on land, and all the SUVs and minivans that aren’t going to the store to buy the stuff that isn’t being made any more?

  4. I’m looking out my living room window at the lights of the container ships mentioned above as I type this. While there are more than there were two years ago, Singapore is constantly ringed by these ships. ‘Secretive’ and ‘sleepy’? Nonsense. Singapore is one of the largest ports in the world, and its sheltered waters, strategic location and high security make it a popular place to ‘park’ all sorts of ships for all sorts of reasons, good economy or bad.

    Eight months ago, now, it was scary bad.

  5. I’m an American living in Singapore and see these ships everyday as I run in East Coast Park.
    I must say that this article is a bit hyperbolic.
    There may be a slightly larger number now than in years past and I’m not sure where the secret comes in. “Ghost Fleet?” Whatevs.

  6. Another thing… I’m paraphrasing, but the writer suggests that Singapore is a pirate infested backwater.
    What a crock. Singapore is solidly in the “first world” category and patrols what is, inch for inch, probably the most secure coastline in the world.

  7. You people are so annoying. I come to the comment section all set to make a snow crash joke, and find that the first four posters have already beaten me to the punch. Jerks…

  8. It’s the makings of our very own Mutant Navy. Let’s go claim them in the name of BoingBoingistan! The United Ships of Boingica!

  9. Hey wait, are those streams of oil coming away from the ships or just calm bits in the water caused by the ships?

  10. I’ve not flown into Singapore all that recently, but every time I came in during daylight hours in the 90s and early 2000s I saw a fleet of parked ships looking very much like that.

    Only usually more of the big ships.

    I just assumed that this was the standard holding pattern for the Port of Singapore.

  11. The cynical part of me (I work in imports) says that the huge fleet of unused container ships is there not due to any economic downturn, it’s instead a nice, regular little money-spinner by the cargo operators.

    Shipping costs were around the $5,500 mark a couple of years ago, they’re down to $3,000 at the moment and that is *with* all sorts of ’emergency’ surcharges on fuel and piracy insurance. Taking vessels out of service puts a premium on container space, which drives the prices up.

    Factor in all the savings in fuel, wages and servicing and this ‘ghost fleet’ is generating a lot of profit for the shipping lines.

  12. @Weaponx, Mojave: I, too, was having trouble with “…but their water has been stolen.” I had to cogitate a while before I realized that wind is to a sailing ship as water is to a tanker, and that sails are said to have their wind stolen when their ships aren’t going anywhere.

    I’d say it was an awkward phrase. But that’s just me. And, apparently, weaponx.

  13. Who shall we elect as Despot for Boinboingistan? I propose Steven Hawking! The world would fall to his Superhuman brain.

  14. @ mercermachine and abeckstrom:

    What’s the geography, here, that you can see them? The article says 50 miles east of Sinapore harbor. I find it very hard to believe that would be either “sleepy” or “secretive,” but a horizon 50 miles away requires an altitude of, what, 500 meters? Are you closer than that, or higher up, or is the article wrong?

  15. who says a micronation has to be permanent? Why can’t a bunch of owners temporarily contract to raft up and claim sovereign rights? They can have an expiry date in the deal. At last, transnationals can really clean up.

  16. @22 looks suspicious. A lunge is usually reflexively met with a thrust in close quarters. At least three cuts?

  17. even a few dozen ships rafted up is a sitting duck. For it to work there has to be major power assets inside. Has to be computer records so that means banking, tax evasion and gambling. And seeing as how most traditional tax havens are getting mugged by governments using the economic crisis as excuse, the time is right. Whose nuclear umbrella would be best to shelter under? Hey, how about Japan? They have to do something soon too.

  18. OK, it appears that some people have nailed down the Snowcrash references. How about the “raft” featured in the sublimely imagined “The Scar” by China de Mieville?

  19. So the economy’s in ship-shape then? It’s treading water, barging into new markets? Everybody’s managing to stay afloat? We are weathering the economic tides? Good. Good…

  20. Careful kids: big ships are not playgrounds:

    Although underway, big ships can be both majestic and inspiring (besides taking a looooong time to pass by my little canoe):

  21. @Robert #24:

    I’d say it was an awkward phrase. But that’s just me. And, apparently, weaponx.

    Count me in too. I figured “…but their water has been stolen” was some kind of metaphor but it’s certainly not a very artful one. I doubt a truck driver would refer to a drop in business by saying his “highway has been stolen.”

    And who is the thief in this metaphor, anyway?

  22. “Their water has been stolen”: stolen from under these ships, which used to move through the seas of commerce and of trade, and which used to scatter the world’s riches as they traded far and near…sigh.

    Their water, the lifeblood of these ships, stolen: by the decline in trade between the nations, by the decline in the commercial activity, which once gave these ships their buoyancy as the necessary instruments of great commercial undertakings. Alas, no more do they ply the great waters: they have become useless.

    I have always found unused and rusty tools to be kinda sad. Because I’ve always felt that there must be someone, somewhere, who could really really use them: people who have needs that the idled tool could fulfill: if only they could have gotten together! But I suppose that’s just the romantic in me talking…

  23. Also, how secretive is this “fleet,” really? Ignorance of the realities of the cargo industry does not constitute a secret. D-Day was a pretty big secret, and it had a whole lot of ships as I recall:

    Yes, but the inevitability of D-Day was known the world ’round.

    This, not so obvious.

  24. so when they are sailing, just what do they ship back to China? Their trade is disturbingly one way… and they’ve successfully murdered the industries of the other countries just by completely undercutting everybody else with ridiculous cheap labour backed by virtually non-existent labour and environmental protection laws and a deliberate policy in maintaining their exchange rate and not allowing it to float properly.

    Even more disturbing is the way western corporations fell over themselves to help the Chinese by outsourcing their production lines for the sake of short term profits on the balance sheets and in the long term destroying themselves and our countries. Corporate laws didn’t help things as the maxim that the share price was the only thing that mattered meant that long term survival fell by the wayside.

  25. Personally, this doesn’t make me all that sad. If one of those ships would have otherwise been spewing oil as it carried plastic macdonalds toys across the pacific, well, I saw it can continue to rust there.

  26. Stored Railroad Cars here in the USA

    On a recent drive out west, friends of mine got off Interstate 94 just west of Endive, near the North Dakota border, and went north on Hwy 200.

    Starting just north of 94 there are railroad flatcars and cars that carry semi-trailers for many, many miles. Accurate measurements were not taken but later estimates from the map, it goes on to or past Lindsey, so they estimated it went on for 10 to 30 miles. The longer it went the more they noticed it. The 120 car coal trains that come into Minnesota daily are tiny by comparison.

    Weeds have grown up between the cars and the carriage works. The wheel contact surfaces were heavily rusted. The were not falling apart, they were almost all useable, but the had been sitting for at quite a while. The guess was they had been there a number of months, not many years.

    We assume this is at least in part due to the economic whatever-you-want-to-call-it.

    Sorry, no pictures.

  27. $5500 a day to charter? What would it take to outright buy one of these unused freighters? I’m thinking of provisioning one as a refuge from the zombie apocalypse. Beats a mall or an armory any day.

  28. Number 23 – I assume the figure of $5,500 you refer to as “shipping costs” is for a singular container because certainly a couple of years ago $5,500 wouldnt have got you a pot to piss in – Look at the Capesize rates of 2 years ago! – or are you refering to an Index related figure??

    Your great conspiracy against the Owners of the vessels which you incorrectly label as ” Cargo Operators” – i will address this point seperately – is extremely misguided.

    1) Vessels are layed up once it is not profitable for them to be traded on the shipping market and the Owners of such vessels would rather pay a minimal outlay to keep them afloat but not actively trading.

    2) As such the move could be construed as an attempt to artificially inflate rates, but believe me such is the current market that it sure isnt helping at all, and with a massive order book of new tonnage being delivered over the next few years, (ordered during the massive high which the market has riden in the very recent past, although quite how many deals will be fully honoured in the current climate is another question,) its real impact is negligible. It is really rather a logical reaction from a vessels Owners viewpoint and whilst it could have an effect on the fundamentals of supply/demand, there are much greater forces at play at present.

    3. “Operating” a ship is a matter of economics – you charter a ship at a certain rate over a period of time, which providing you have read the market correctly will allow you to then book in cargoes (or have them booked already in anticiaption of taking a ship on charter,)to “Operate” and thus return a profit (the differential between your charter rate of the ship and the costs which you subsequently agree with others on the cargoes that you will load on your vessel; in basic terms.) Thus you have to be a complete plonker to take a ship on charter and let it sit there doing nothing in a vain attempt to push the market up…. some of the first casualties in the shipping slump have been operators with tonnage that they chartered at such high levels that when the slump came they were left high and dry with no hope of even recovering close to what they havd paid to charter vessels for.

    You go on to say –

    “Factor in all the savings in fuel, wages and servicing and this ‘ghost fleet’ is generating a lot of profit for the shipping lines”

    Im sorry to flame you, but you are a complete and utter idiot. Your grasp of even basic business acumen and in particular the Shipping market is pitiful! Please stop talking such horse manure.

    From someone whos really in the Shipping market.

  29. MDH – You were blind-sided by the looming economic crisis? It too was considered inevitable by those willing to look at the housing market honestly. House values (in the US) rose at a multiple of rise in income, and the loans being offered made no financial sense (110% mortgage? Pick your payment, any shortage will be added on to the principle? etc.)

    This collection of ships isn’t “secret” (you can see it from the coast), and I contend it isn’t the largest “navy” on the sea ever (allowing that they are all members of the “for profit” navy) – the reporter who wrote the piece never knew about this “holding area”. so obviously no one knew, so it’s a secret (except for the owners, the crews, the folks that insure the ships, oh, and anyone that lives, works, or travels near the coast line where the ships are)…

    It is interesting, that’s about all…

  30. Hey, could we buy stock in some companies, then when they crash holler till they give us one of these ships? It’d make a neat starter “micronation” and when more artificial islands are formed, a good ‘transport’ vessel…

  31. “… is surely the biggest and most secretive gathering of ships in maritime history.”

    Yes, very secretive… Can’t even see them.
    Let alone sail into them, as they don’t even exist!

    Veeery secretive…


  32. Hopkins Douglas discussed:

    Stored Railroad Cars here in the USA

    Please don’t take this the wrong way, but everything has to be somewhere, and RR cars are much easier to store on tracks (and they have a tremendous shelf-life) than elsewhere. I suspect you saw nothing more than a RR car holding area, and it may or may not be indicative of the state of the economy. I’m not willing to draw any conclusion based on a sample size of one, especially one where you aren’t really sure if the collection was ten or thirty miles long…

    Also, any reason you felt the need to post this same second-hand observation three times?

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