Watchkeeper: On the vulnerabilities of container ships
Salvors seem to be doing a hugely professional job in their fire-fighting aboard the 'MSC Flaminia' as the tow makes its way slowly to safety after the fatal explosion and fire in mid-Atlantic earlier this month. A very large number of the containers aboard the ship have been destroyed and there is little doubt that this will constitute a major insurance loss for 2012.
While the drama with the German container ship was still proceeding, in a Russian port the dockers discovered that deep in the container stow aboard another large ship, there was evidence of a substantial cargo explosion that had destroyed one container and damaged several boxes in its vicinity. Fortunately, this had not been the precursor to a major fire, but certainly gives those concerned with cargo safety cause for thought.
The industry can be proud of its safety record in the vast number of containers safely delivered to their destinations each year. The precision and efficiency of the sector is truly amazing and is one of the wonders of modern transport, even though it is largely taken for granted by those who depend upon modern shipping, often without ever thinking about it.
Nevertheless, the particular vulnerabilities of container ships, which seem to be magnified by their growth in size, provides constant concern to insurers and indeed to those who might be professionally engaged in any emergency involving one of these ships. Whether it is a container ship aground, which is a nightmare for salvors in so many different areas, a fire in the cargo section or a ship holed in a collision, salvage of such a vessel is a major challenge. Such an emergency with one of the very largest container ships has the potential for real catastrophe in terms of the potential values at risk.
BIMCO has joined with other shipping organisations to call for a more responsible and professional approach to the carriage of hazardous cargo in containers and for the utmost accuracy in the description of such cargo. There have been too many vastly expensive accidents involving cargo which has been treated in a cavalier manner by shippers, either because of carelessness or with the intent to deceive about container contents.
There is still a long way to go in effectively fighting fires on container ships, whether in the holds or on the deck stack. Access to containers for fire-fighting parties is very difficult, such is the design of most container ships, while the ability to smother a fire is extremely limited and impossible in deck-loaded boxes. There has been progress in designing lances that can be used to penetrate a steel container to facilitate the entry of a fire-fighting medium, but such is not without its risks, especially if there is any doubt about the contents. The spread of fire between containers can be fast and furious and the rate of destruction can be truly alarming. Extraordinary levels of heat can be generated.
Isolating the damaged compartments, either from fire or from flooding after water ingress is also notably difficult on container ships. The longitudinal strength of a container ship’s structure can be weakened quite easily in such a fashion and salvors tend to suggest that there is no container ship casualty that can be described as “minor”. Container ship serious accidents do not happen that frequently, and that is cause for celebration. But some professionals suggest that much more thought should be given to making these vessels less vulnerable and more robust. It is easier said than done!
Articles written by the Watchkeeper and other outside contributors do not necessarily reflect the views or policy of BIMCO.