Many of the consumer goods you own came across the sea in a container from somewhere in Southeast Asia. Those containers, crammed with all manner of products, both durable and perishable, are ubiquitous. We see them on trucks on the motorways and on long freight trains on our railways. So imagine the scarcely imaginable, a ship putting to sea with 17,603 of those containers aboard.

That’s what happened on 21 August (2014). The Mary Maersk, one of the three largest cargo ships in the world (but not for long) set off from Algeciras, Spain at the sedate speed of 17.8 knots on its journey east for Tanjung Pelepas, Malaysia, breaking a world record haul of containers. Within weeks the vessel will be back in Europe or North America laden with yet more consumer goods, helping the world economy tick over.

The Mary Maersk, launched in 2013, is almost a quarter of a mile (396 metres) long and 50 m wide. To load its containers, new cranes were installed at Algeciras and existing cranes were extended. This, the third vessel in the 20 strong triple-E class series, is one of the new super vessels of world shipping.

But even if you can grasp the prodigious capacity of this monster, you are still not even close to comprehending just how huge is maritime trade on the early 21st-century planet Earth.

The impact of recession on Maersk Line

Despite the contraction of the industry following the start of recession in 2008, Maersk Line shows clear signs of improving fortunes in international shipping. With its 15% share of world seaborne freight, the company is considered a good indicator for the current health of global trade. The Danish group said shipping volumes rose 6.6 percent in the second quarter of 2014, with net profit set to more than triple to $2.3 billion. Maersk recently upgraded its prediction of full year profits to $4.5bn.

Why build a ship that no port can handle?

The Emma Maersk was built in 2005, with a capacity greater than 15,000 TEU. That was an an E-class ship . The record-breaking Mary Maersk, one of Maersk’s “Triple E” series, can carry 18,270 containers, although, currently, there is no port with the capacity to handle it fully laden. (The “Triple E” stands for “Economy of scale, Energy efficiency and Environmentally improved”).

Construction of the series is underway at Korea’s Daewoo shipbuilding yards. Ships in the fleet will produce 20% less CO2 per container moved compared to the Emma Maersk, previously the world’s largest container vessel, and 50% less than the industry average on the Asia-Europe route. Transporting goods the same distance in a jumbo jet would require 368 times more energy.

Larger ships are on the horizon

The Triple Es won’t be the biggest for long. The ship-owning Scorpio Group is planning to build three 19,200-TEU container ships for the Monaco-based MSC, the world’s second-largest container carrier. They will cost about $153 million each. If ultimately they end up being built, they will overtake what are currently the largest capacity ships on order, the 19,000-TEU vessels booked for China Shipping Container Lines and United Arab Shipping Co.

While it may be too early to say what the absolute upper limit of a container ship might be, the carriers strive to cut costs even further and gain a competitive edge. However, one thing is certain – for the foreseeable future they will continue to get bigger. Analysts are openly talking about 24,000-TEU ships on the drawing board. The Mary Maersk should enjoy its record while it can.