Hulking Cargo Ships Sit Idle Off Singapore

To go out in a small boat along Singapore’s coast now is to feel like a mouse tiptoeing through an endless herd of slumbering elephants.

One of the largest fleets of ships ever gathered idles here just outside one of the world’s busiest ports, marooned by the receding tide of global trade. There may be tentative signs of economic recovery in spots around the globe, but few here. Hundreds of cargo ships – some up to 270,000 metric tons, with many weighing more than the entire 130-ship Spanish Armada – seem to perch on top of the water rather than in it, their red rudders and bulbous noses, submerged when the vessels are loaded, sticking several meters out of the water. So many ships have congregated here – 735, according to AIS Live tracking service of Lloyd’s Register-Fairplay Research, a ship tracking service based in Gothenburg, Sweden – that shipping lines are becoming concerned about near misses and collisions in one of the world’s most congested waterways, the Strait of Malacca, which separates Malaysia and Singapore from Indonesia. The root of the problem lies in an unusually steep slump in global trade, confirmed by trade statistics announced on May 12. China said that its exports nose-dived 22.6 percent in April from a year earlier, while the Philippines said that its exports in March were down 30.9 percent from a year earlier. The United States recently announced that its exports had declined 2.4 percent in March. “The March 2009 trade data reiterates the current challenges in our global economy,”said Ron Kirk, the United States trade representative. More worrisome is that the current level of trade suggests a recovery is far off, many in the shipping business say.

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