The container ship that docked at the Freeport terminal in Marsaxlokk last Sunday is the largest vessel ever to arrive in Malta. It is CMA-GCM's Christophe Colomb and is 365.5 metres long, has a 51.2-metre beam, a 15.5-metre draft at maximum load and can carry up to 13,344 TEU containers.

The arrival of this vessel is certainly an important historical first for the Freeport, similar to the one of April 18, 1990, when the first container ship, Norasia's Al-Muntazah, which is "only" 201.5 metres long, berthed at Marsaxlokk, which had then just been inaugurated.

These were two historical berthings of great importance to Malta, at a distance of 20 years and 165 metres from each other. Seen from the perspective of physical dimensions, what has now come to be known as naval gigantism can be gauged by the parameters of maritime development in the Mediterranean and we feel proud of this "success" of the maritime economy determined by the business decisions of a limited number of international ship owners.

The trend towards ever bigger ships, however, does not meet with the approval of all ship-owning companies. Though larger ships mean savings in administrative costs, this is offset by the increasingly difficult access to harbours and the spiralling cost of fuel. This, in fact, has become the principal cost factor of cruise or transport shipping lines.

The problem created by gigantism in merchant ships or cruise liners does not concern only the ship's running costs but also affects the very redefinition of the harbour itself, especially in the Mediterranean.

Virtually all the major maritime ports of the Mediterranean, in fact, are historical harbours whose origins and first port structures go back more than 2,000 years, at the time of the Phoenicians and the Romans and the Middle Ages.

It is not surprising, therefore, to find traces of history and art in the harbour areas, and sometimes in the harbours themselves, as we find, for example, in Malta or Venice.

The fact that a vessel over 350 metres in length arrived last Sunday at Marsaxlokk Freeport confirms the findings of recent research by the European Union that foresees a growth of 23 per cent in sea traffic in the next decade. With the opening of the Suez Canal (in 1869), the Mediterranean has become one of the busiest sea routes in the world. Although it makes up less than one per cent (0.8 per cent, to be exact) of all the world's seas and oceans, it now "hosts" a fifth of the world's sea traffic.

Malta is in the centre of the Mediterranean, half-way between the entrance to it from the oceans at either end - Gibraltar and Suez - and at a crossroads of sea traffic to and from North Africa.

With the setting up of the European Community, the Mediterranean has become a sea with a new body of legislation regarding flagging and countries which, until a few years ago, were on the margins of trade relations with Europe, such as China and are now stimulating the main players of the new "competitive game" to maximise the efficiency of their ships, whether cruise liners or cargo ships.

It is estimated that over 200 million sea passengers pass through the Mediterranean every year, thanks mostly to the growth of the cruise liner business.

Next year, the cruise liner Oasis Of The Seas will start operating. It is 361 metres long, with a width of 66 metres at its widest point and 47 metres for most of the ship, and 72 metres above the waterline at its highest point. It can carry up to 6,360 passengers (5,408 if only two persons occupy each cabin), besides a crew of 2,100. The ship has 18 decks (16 of which for passengers) and a total of 2,704 cabins. It is a veritable sea monster which, for the time being, will operate in the Pacific but which will oblige the ports of the old Mediterranean - as some high seas seamen call it - to carry out a serious rethinking of their berthing facilities, room for manoeuvre, efficiency and aesthetics, harmony and strength, urban and military architecture, as in Malta's Grand Harbour, whose beauty is evident when the ship enters under the shadow of those imposing and impregnable walls.

In the history of Malta's harbour and its sea traffic, every historical age has tried to outdo the preceding one, to leave its mark on the island, in order to be remembered as an important presence in Europe's sea.

Naval gigantism is becoming "the problem" of the Mediterranean because it concerns the economic activities bound to the sea - tourism, navigation and the harbour - not only as a place of arrival and departure.

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