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Sharp eyed readers of Windsurf magazine may have noticed that our intrepid correspondent John Carter has a mild obsession with shooting windsurfing next to large ships, well actually massive ones to be more precise! Back in 2014, in our ‘Pirates of the Solent’ feature, ‘JC’ and his accomplice Scott Gardener tracked down the Marco Polo, which at the time was the second largest container ship in the world. This issue our senior ship spotter has been at it again with the mighty ‘Barzan’, 400 metres of steel and deadweight of a whopping 199,744 tonnes! Read on as Captain Carter tells his salty tale!

Words  John Carter  // Photos  John Carter & Wightskycam

JC – “The basic idea here has always been to capture spectacular images highlighting windsurfing up against some of the largest and most impressive ships on the planet! Since our last escapade the poor old Marco Polo at a mere 396m in length has duly flunked out of the top ten biggest ships to be replaced by a new breed of so called ‘Ultra Large Container Ships’. Ports such as Southampton have expanded to handle these massive vessels with huge drafts and enormous cargo capabilities. The latest container ships are now hitting 400m in length and have far greater capacities. Put one of these brutes on its end in London and it would be longer than the Shard, the city’s tallest building, by over 100 metres! In fact there are only twenty buildings in the world taller than the latest super container ships! In other words, the time was ripe for my crew and I to embark on a new mission and hunt down some fresh behemoths!

When I am home in the summer I always make a point of meticulously scanning the shipping movements schedule once a week just on the off chance of the arrival of a boat more impressive than the Marco Polo. The vessel has to arrive during daylight hours of course and obviously on a windy day to trigger any kind of red alert. Then of course a competent rider with suitable equipment is required and most importantly, they must be willing to undertake the very dodgy mission of sailing alongside one of these huge ships!

I was sipping my cappuccino one fateful morning when I spotted a vessel called the Barzan all set to depart from Southampton at 7am on the Associated British Ports website! The average container ships are normally around 330m to 365m in length but this monster was showing a ridiculous 400m, the equivalent of four football pitches in length! Having almost spluttered my coffee all over the computer, within seconds I was already on a mission to discover more! Shaking with excitement, I searched the latest list of the biggest container ships in the world. The Barzan was right up there at number five and was even the number one for a short while back in 2015! The Barzan was not quite the biggest but surely worthy of an ambush from whatever ramshackle crew I could muster together. A quick check on ‘xcweather.co.uk’ showed a decent enough westerly breeze predicted at around 14 -19 knots, which was plenty for what I had in mind. A plan was beginning to form! 

Normally fellow islander Ross Williams would be the ideal able seaman for such an escapade but since he got married last year he spends most of his time on the distant shores of Maui, lucky sod! Scott Gardener who runs Wight-Water in Sandown is always up for an adventure but a quick message revealed that he was on an expedition in Portugal until Monday afternoon; too late! Next on the list was Richard Box, one of the island’s most experienced and long standing sailors but he was in a business meeting. Apparently his 6.4m sail was mostly held together with Sellotape, which also did not sound ideal, so I cast aside him out of the equation for the time being. His brother Pete Box from ‘Wightskycam’ was keen but was suffering from an injured shoulder so unable to windsurf. As a consolation he offered to come and shoot with his drone if I could muster up a volunteer. Now we had angles of attack lined up from both the land and the air!

Come July 2nd and I was still rider-less with most folk busy, away or without any appropriate equipment. Then by chance while I was out cruising the prom’ on my bike I saw mega keen windsurfer Nick Clemens of Provision Events having a cup of tea on the beachfront with a few friends. After a short conversation it was established that he had a shiny newish (2015) 6.5 Severne Gator, a 2017 Starboard Carve 131 and was willing and able to accept the challenge. We were on!

The next morning was gloomy and felt windless when I gazed out of the curtains groggy eyed at 6:30am. A quick check of the shipping schedule showed the departure time had been delayed until 12pm, so at least there was time for the weather to clear up. As captain of the mission, I decided to make the final decision at 11:15am so we would all have time to drive across the island to the launching area along Cowes seafront. But then at 11am I was distracted by my wife insisting I help my son fill out an application form for a shelf stacking job at Morrisons! I became immersed in the task and the next thing I know, I look down at my watch and it was already 11:40…only twenty minutes before departure doh! Looking outside and the trees were waving around in the breeze and the sun was breaking through the clouds! How could I have possibly been distracted from my utmost important mission? Two frantic calls were made to Pete and Nick and within a matter of minutes we are all en route to Cowes in a mad dash to catch the Barzan. Better late than never I suppose! As I drove down into Cowes, the first view of the Solent was positive with whitecaps galore and chock-a-block with sailing boats keeling over in the stiff breeze.

Down on the seafront the latest update revealed that the Barzan was just casting off from the dock so we at least had time for Nick to rig and have a few warm up runs before encountering this brute of a ship! Nick is predominantly into wave sailing and is just learning to loop so I was pretty sure he would have the skills to navigate the choppy waters of the Solent on freeride kit. Even though it was windy, Pete suggested an uphaul might come in handy especially if Nick were to somehow go down in the path of the oncoming Barzan. Scratching around for any form of improvisation we eventually managed to jury-rig a sufficient device from two dog leads in the back of Nick’s van! Not the prettiest looking solution but you never know it might save the day if needed! Nick’s first warm up run was a moderate success and if anything he looked overpowered on the 6.5m and possibly over boarded but at least he looked well able to manage the job in hand! He returned to the beach fully powered for a final debrief! It seemed like an eternity before we spotted the huge white bridge of our contraband approaching Calshot Spit but finally our time had come to get things underway with the main objective of ‘Operation Barzan’. One final check of my Canons, my quartermaster Pete in position with his drone and sailor Nick rigged and ready and we were ‘good to go’!

I’d clearly pointed out a red marker buoy to Nick out in the Solent where we were sure the Barzan would alter course before heading towards the English Channel. Obviously we needed Nick to give it a wide berth but on the other hand we did at least need him to sail somewhere between my camera lens and the fast approaching ship! Unfortunately as Nick hit the water the clouds darkened over to the west and a nasty looking rainsquall seemed to quash the wind. Gallantly he tried to head out but the gusty inside section was doing him no favours. After a nifty tack, Nick headed back in and scrambled with his kit a few hundred metres upwind to where the wind was less offshore. Meanwhile the daunting outline of the Barzan was rapidly approaching into the prime shooting zone with time ticking away.

Once again Nick headed out and this time looked a little more powered even though the wind was far less than when we arrived. Just as I instructed, he headed towards the red channel marker but lo and behold the Barzan started swinging way earlier than I had figured and was turning at a different yellow buoy a few hundred metres across the Solent. As a result of my miscalculation or you could say horrific planning and complete ignorance of ship pilotage, I was in totally the wrong spot to capture the shot I had been waiting for. I was in panic stations mode and scurried along the promenade in order to gain a better angle; we were on the clock as the huge ship was swinging through the prime shooting zone in all its glory. Meanwhile Nick was struggling to plane, it seemed like the one solitary squall along the whole of the south coast had hit and killed the wind right when we needed it the most! If only this could have been plain sailing like when we arrived the mission would have been simple; instead I was ‘all at sea’ trying to salvage the situation.

Despite the elements being firmly against us, Nick still managed to manoeuvre his 6.5m Gator and 131 litre Carve onto a broad reach up against the massive black hull of the 400 metre long man made monster! The tiny windsurf sail and any other vessel around for that matter were all dwarfed by this ridiculously large ship as its huge hull ploughed its way up through the Solent and headed out towards Portsmouth and beyond.

The critical shooting window was over in a matter of 10 minutes as the Barzan slipped away into the distance. I was feeling kind of deflated that I had bungled the turning area but at least had snatched a few shots with Nick planing alongside.

The knowledge that several even bigger ships are still somewhere out there on the high seas, was at least a slight consolation that this may not be the final chapter in my maritime quest. The biggest beast right now is the OOCL Hong Kong, which is also 400m long but can carry a staggering 21,413 containers. Right now the current crop of Ultra Large Container ships can only just squeeze down the Suez Canal and only a handful of ports are able to handle them. Needless to say an emergency debrief was called for in the Woodvale Pub overlooking the Solent where a pint of ale seemed to take the edge off my frustration! Typically, half an hour after we had packed up the wind was howling under bright sunshine. So at the time of writing, the quest is still far from over! I will continue to check those shipping movements religiously on the eternal search for that elusive prize of the biggest ship in the world!”


The Barzan owned by the United Arab Shipping Company (UASC) was built by Hyundai Samho Heavy Industries in South Korea, not too far from where the PWA race every year. The name Barzan means ‘High Place’ in Arabic and is named after the huge observation towers in Qatar who have a shareholding in UASC, its owners. Its engine alone has the equivalent power of 550 Volkswagen Golf cars! This huge beast of a ship took six months to build from cutting the steel to its initial launching and cost 163.6 million US dollars. Classed as an Ultra Large Container Ship, the Barzan was the first vessel to have a quoted length of 400 metres and is also a whopping 58.6m wide. The ship can carry up to 19,870 TEU (twenty foot equivalent unit) containers, ten tiers deep below decks and another eleven tiers high up above! Putting that into perspective each individual container could carry 3596 shoeboxes or around 71 million shoeboxes in total! It is estimated that over 10,000 containers are lost at sea every year which equates to around one every hour. For the most part they sink to the bottom but some float perilously just beneath the surface. There are over 17 million containers in the world with around six million out on the water at any one time! For the big companies that own these ultra large container ships the economics of scale are simple, the larger the vessel and the more TEU’s they can carry then the cheaper the cost per TEU allowing lower freight rates! So the likelihood is that container ships will continue to grow bigger and bigger as long as ports can handle them with talk already of vessels being made that can carry over 22,000 TEU’s! Bring it on!

Compared to the 400m long, 58m wide Barzan, the Starboard Carve 131 is a mere 252 cm long, 82 cm wide and weighs 7.45 Kilos. Before the final mould, 10 prototypes were made, utilizing 8 testers and 4 designers. The average board takes 21 hours to complete with 15 people involved in the various manufacturing stages at the Cobra factory in Thailand. The boards are transported to Laem Chabang Port about 25 km from Pattaya where they are loaded into 20 (70 boards) and 40 feet (140 boards) containers. From here they are distributed to all the dealers and importers around the world!

Starting from scratch with just the raw materials in the warehouse approximately 90 people work on each Gator from start to finish. This obviously does not include all the previous hours of R&D that have gone into the testing process of a new model before production. The average sail takes between 3 and 5 days to manufacture before it is ready for shipping. The latest five batten 6.5m Gators are amongst Severne’s best-selling models and each weigh approximately 3.66 kilos and stand 4.5m tall and 1.9m wide. All Severne sails are loaded from the LMB factory in China into trucks and then into containers where they are shipped from the Port of Hong Kong in the South China Sea. Each container holds approximately 300 sails and shipping time from Hong Kong to Southampton takes between 4-5 weeks depending on the route taken!

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