Page last updated at 04:52 GMT, Friday, 8 May 2009 05:52 UK

Ships shelter from economic storm

By Alex Bushill
BBC News

View of container ship from pub
Many tourists are unhappy at seeing the Fal estuary full of huge ships

The global economic downturn has hit shipping hard, forcing many owners to take their vessels off the seas and mothball them at ports.

In a hidden and sheltered Cornish river sanctuary, there is a spectacular sight - a sign of just how bad the global downturn has become.

The Fal estuary has been filled up with giant container ships waiting for global trade to pick up.

In the distance, the Santa Giovanna bobs gently up and down with the incoming tide.

The 21,000-tonne ship used to be found plying the shipping lanes of the world, laden with goods from Chinese DVD players to New World wine.

Not any more.

The local harbour master, Captain Andy Brigden, said we should not be surprised at the situation.

The estuary was full just after Christmas - a couple of the boats have been scrapped but more are coming in
Peter Newman, mariner

"The Fal estuary is the barometer of world trade," he said.

"When the Fal is empty, trade is buoyant. When it's full, like now, things are tough.

"This has always been historically the case over the last century. In the 1930s, 60s, 90s and now too.

"Basically what's happening is we are buying and selling fewer cars in Europe. That's why the car carrying ships are here.

"We're buying less white goods from China, and that's why the container ships are here too."

As if to prove his point the Santa Giovanna slowly squeezes its way up the Fal estuary, her enormous hull dwarfing the river banks.

She will join six other vessels anchored here, waiting to sit out the downturn.

The reason they have chosen to hide away in Cornwall is simple.

Complaints

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Ships laid up in Cornish beauty spot

The Fal estuary is amongst the deepest anywhere in the country. It is well protected from the elements.

Above all, though, it is cheaper for shipping magnates to keep their vessels here with a skeleton crew than out at sea waiting for orders that are not coming.

For local mariner Peter Newman, their loss is his gain.

For a fee, he will check generators, ferry crew and even deliver the groceries.

As he checked over the moorings of his growing fleet from his launch, Valhalla, he said: "The estuary was full just after Christmas.

"Since then a couple of the boats have been scrapped but more are coming in."

Many people - residents and tourists alike - are dismayed by the situation.

Some who joined pleasure cruises have complained that the trip was ruined by the "eyesore" of the ships.

Locals have complained about the noise the ships make when they turn over their generators for maintenance checks.

But the local economy is benefiting. The harbour authority charges thousands of pounds each month for every vessel that is laid up.

Other ports across the country have been watching closely, with the aim of following suit.

Captain Brigden accepts he must not get carried away.

"There is a fine balance to be struck," he said.

"We're not going to pack the Fal with as many boats as possible. We need to be good neighbours."

Meanwhile, the Santa Giovanna waits for better economic times.

The FTSE or Dow Jones may ebb and flow but if you want a copper-bottomed guarantee for measuring global trade, this estuary is it.

When the river starts emptying, we will know the tide has turned for the world economy.



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