COLUMN | Rough seas ahead [Grey Power]

Photo: Canadian Coast Guard

It didn’t take long after the autumn equinox before the storms in the northern oceans were racking up their first substantial container losses, something of a portent of far worse to come as winter extends its grip on the sealanes. The 4,526TEU ZIM Kingston was inbound to Vancouver when some 30-40 boxes were lost in the sea or damaged as the fourth bay from forward disappeared in heavy weather. Then to compound their misery, the wreckage of the residual boxes in that stack caught fire (pictured), with a dangerous chemical that reacts with water causing the evacuation of three quarters of her crew for their own safety. Meanwhile, the respective coast guards of the US and Canada were attempting to track those boxes that remained afloat.

In the grand scheme of container shipping, this is a small loss aboard a relative minnow in oceanic trade, but it is worth asking whether anything very much has been learned from the record losses of the previous winter, with their several spectacular stack collapses. With greater numbers of bigger ships being commissioned practically every month, it doesn’t take a seer to suggest that the coming winter could see many more containers coming to grief as the storms track over the northern oceans.

“There is a great deal that can go wrong, without the present logistic crisis.”

Just a couple of years ago, it seems, we were marvelling at 19,000TEU ships with nine high boxes on deck. There was a 24,000TEU monster arrived on her maiden voyage to north Europe with eleven high stacked abaft the bridge and with the desperate efforts to move the creaking logistics chain up a gear, we will surely see full loads being carried on virtually every sailing. Admittedly, many of those on top will be empties, as the carriers struggle to get the boxes back where they ought to be, but the heights, and windage, will remain spectacular. It is also worth remembering that the technology that secures these monstrous loads to the ship is fundamentally the same as was found aboard the first containerships – fifty years ago.

I’m afraid it rather gives away my age, but I remember attending a new Dart Containerline ship in the early 1970s as she set off across the North Atlantic on her first voyage with the boxes two high on the hatches, which was seen to be very brave. They were anxious to show us the lashing arrangements – the “state of the art” rods and turnbuckles, which I’m afraid are largely replicated – slightly scaled up – aboard today’s monsters more than ten times the carrying capacity of those old ships, which were specifically built for North Atlantic conditions.

We might have automatic and semi-automatic twistlocks (which sometimes bring their own problems), and some designers incorporate lashing bridges that enable up to the first six tiers to be “rodded”, but the problems that afflicted the first containerships have never been wholly solved. Ships still “work” in a seaway, the hatchcovers under the towering stacks move independently on their seals, and the lashings flex with the movement. The wretched crews of the ships, scaled back in numbers, are supposed to check the lashings, but their small complements and heavy weather make this almost wishful thinking, as reality kicks in on a stormy passage.

Then we have to consider the vulnerabilities of the boxes within the stack, which might be structurally weakened, may have been loaded by somebody unable to comprehend the motions of a truck on the road, let alone a ship on the high seas. And despite heightened regulations (which took years to bring into effect), the chances are that there may be serious errors in declared weights, if not contents. There is a great deal that can go wrong, without the present logistic crisis.

“The ‘excuse’ of heavy weather no longer registers with the authorities, with prosecutions in several European states and Australia after losses.”

Ports, straining to cope with the ships and the boxes on their terminals, are struggling and will be even more desperate to rush ships off the berth. It is optimistic to believe that in all this haste, short cuts in container inspection or lashing procedures will not take place as the queues of waiting ships lengthen.

Doubtless the precautionary notices to the masters of container ships will be twice as detailed this season, as the carriers seek to deflect any blame for future weather-related losses. But it might be suggested that the lines’ strategy will remain unchanged as a sort of zero-sum game, on the basis that almost all containers will (eventually) reach their destinations safely, hoping that the stack collapses don’t happen on their ships. Doing anything more positive, like reducing the height for winter passages and longer weather diversions, are just too disruptive.

They do need to bear in mind, however, that the level of tolerance by coastal states at pollution of their waters and shores by wrecked containers and their contents, has effectively run out. The “excuse” of heavy weather no longer registers with the authorities, with prosecutions in several European states and Australia after losses. While it has usually been the master, who is probably unable to prevent the accident, who ends up in court, this is likely to change as attitudes harden.

Michael Grey

Maritime industry legend, and former long-term editor of Lloyds List, Michael Grey kicks off each month with topical issues affecting the maritime world at large.