From Genoa to Algeciras, breakwaters play a strategic role

A look at the “islands in the sea” that are fundamental infrastructures for global trade

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the deepest breakwater in Europe is in Algeciras, Spain, which stretches for 40 metres (131 feet) below the surface of the sea. This record will now be broken by the breakwater in Genoa, Italy, which – once completed – will reach a depth of 50 metres (164 feet), making it among the deepest in the world.

Breakwaters were created to protect ports from violent weather, and, unlike piers that are attached to land, these infrastructures are “islands” in the sea. Their usefulness is rooted in history: the first breakwater was built 150 years ago, in 1873 at Holyhead in North Wales, inaugurated by the then Prince of Wales Albert Edward, which still today – at 2.7 kilometres (or 1.7 miles) – is the longest in the United Kingdom.

The strategic role of breakwaters in the U.S. and Italy today

Breakwaters are particularly necessary for the movement of large ships, the up to 400-metre-long (1,132-foot) giants of the sea that are increasingly key players in global trade.

In Galveston, Texas, a town in the U.S. on the Gulf of Mexico, the country’s largest breakwater measuring 10.7 kilometres (6.6 miles) in length was built for storm protection for the large vessels that handle oil and chemicals extracted and processed in the state. In California, at the Port of Long Beach (another strategic hub which handles 15% of the country’s cargo transport) a 10-kilometre-long (6-mile) breakwater allows access for large ships.

Strategic infrastructure for shipping trade

In 2021, global trade reached a total value of $28 trillion (€28 trillion). Seventy percent of this value resides in goods that are transported by ship. About 100,000 cargo ships make their way around the world carrying goods from one continent to another across the oceans. These giants of the sea can only dock in certain ports, those that have adequate bottom depth and sufficient protection from winds and the sea provided by breakwaters.

The ability to “accommodate” large ships, as is the case in the port of Rotterdam or in many Asian ports, is a considerable driver of wealth precisely because of the amount of trade these giants ensure. Currently, the largest vessels can be loaded with 24,000 standard containers, the equivalent of the cargo capacity of a freight train stretching for 70 kilometres (43 miles.)

The Genoa breakwater to put Italy back at the center of global trade

In Italy over the years, a number of breakwaters have been built: the breakwater at the port of Prà in Liguria (about 3 kilometres, or 1.8 miles, long), the breakwater at the port of Naples (2.5 kilometres/1.5 miles), and the breakwater at the port of Pegli in Liguria (5.3 kilometres/3.2 miles). But none of Italy’s ports can accommodate the world’s largest ships.

By building a new breakwater that will reach a length of 6.2 kilometres (3.8 miles) and a record depth of 50 metres (164 feet)  Genoa will become a candidate to host the giants of the sea.

In fact, the work will be placed about 450 meters further offshore than the current breakwater, and will be capable of ensuring transits and maneuvers of ships in total safety. To build it will require a foundation of about 7 million tons of rock material at a depth of 50 metres (164 feet), which will support 100 reinforced concrete caissons up to 33 metres (108 feet) high, up to 35 metres (114 feet) wide and up to 67 metres (218 feet) long will be placed. This will ensure maneuvering and access for large ships up to 450 metres (1,476 feet) in length. The work is financed with funds from Italy’s Nation Recovery and Resilience Plan (NRRP) and the European Investment Bank and will be carried out by Webuild, which has already built the San Giorgio Bridge in Genoa and is involved in the construction of the Terzo Valico dei Giovi, the high-speed railway that will connect Genoa with Milan. The breakwater construction site alone will create 1,000 jobs, and transform Genoa into one of Europe’s most important trade and transport hubs.