Container stack collapses have seen a spike in recent months with vessels losing a combined total of around 5,762 containers from five major incidents between November last year and February this year. The industry is looking to unravel the puzzle as to why large container ships have started to shed boxes at such an alarming rate.
Those losses amount to more than the 1,382-annual average from World Shipping Council (WSC) surveys, and they have alarmed the shipping lines, shippers and regulators alike with a number of investigations under way, but none of these probes are, apparently, working together.
In a series of three stories, Container News analyses the possible causes of container losses, including a look at the commercial pressures applied to shipowners and vessel masters, the apparent failure of regulatory enforcement, the technical issues involved in stack collapses and the difficulties that the industry must overcome to remedy the situation.
As losses pile up the International Union of Marine Insurers (IUMI) has also seen its members’ concerns rise. IUMI secretary general Lars Lange said that there are a number of investigations occurring, each studying “different aspects of the problem,” while there was “no co-ordinated investigation,” that he was aware of.
Lange believes there is no single cause for this developing problem, container weights, stuffing of containers, lashing technology, stowage plans and the growth in the size of ships have all played a part in the increased losses.
That is a view that the WSC subscribes to, but the carrier representative has also, “indicated to the MARIN research institute our interest in the joint industry research project that is being developed entitled “TopTier”. We anticipate that this joint research project may, based on scientific analyses and studies and desktop as well as real-life measurements, result in the development of specific, actionable and realistic recommendations to improve container safety.”
Until TopTier reports, however, there will be speculation as to why so many containers have been lost in a comparatively short space of time.
One of the major explanations, that may not make comfortable reading for the maritime sector is not a lack of proper regulation, but rather a possible failure by regulatory authorities to enforce existing regulations. This includes the verified gross mass (VGM) regulations that were enacted less than five years ago and allegedly the rules governing the lashing of containers in port and the requirement for all containers to be lashed before setting sail. (See Box losses don’t stack up. Part Two, 20 April).
Investigations into stack collapses that have occurred on a number of ships, from November 2020 onwards are expected to focus largely on the technical issues parametric rolling along with extra forces placed on automatic twistlocks as well as the weight of containers, all coming into play as a ship travels through heavy weather. But some believe that there should be a greater focus on the role of commercial pressures in stack collapses too.
Two crew members have separately told Container News that masters on board large box carriers are under such tremendous pressure to meet vessel schedules that ships have left ports with containers still unlashed, with crew expected to complete the stowing job as the vessel manoeuvres at sea. According to two vessel masters, one under the condition of anonymity, commercial pressures can be intense, and owners may compel masters, who often fear for their job, to set sail with the vessel in a condition that would not be considered safe.
What is more, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) rules that prohibit such a practice, are in place, but often these rules remain unenforced by port state controls, even though the regulations have been in place for nearly 30 years, since November 1991.
Box losses from large container ships are largely considered to be either a technical or design problem, or a container weight and cargo stowage error. While stack collapses are considered to be so rare, that the industry itself does not count these losses per se, but includes these figures in aggregation. For example, the sinking of the 8,200TEU MOL Comfort, with all cargo lost, 4,332 containers, in 2013 resulted in a spike in the figures and is included in WSC’s 12-year average.
Container losses in the period between November 2020 and February 2021 were staggering with such high-profile companies as Ocean Network Express (ONE), MSC with the MSC Aries, Maersk Line’s Maersk Essen and Evergreen Marine’s Ever Liberal more than doubling the annual loss rate within a period of less than four months. Though none of these lines were mentioned by the crew who spoke with Container News.
As a result, Vanuatu will propose at the upcoming International Maritime Organization (IMO) Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) 103 meeting that containers are fitted with tracking devices so that the exact size of the problem can be determined as a first step in finding a solution to container losses at sea. While carriers are conducting their own studies of the issues, behind closed doors.
Mounting concern at the levels of cargo loss and container stack collapses within the maritime industry has seen shipping lines shielding the evidence of losses with legal teams banning the use of video footage of damaged vessels and reportedly banning staff and contractors from discussing the issues under scrutiny within investigations.
Focusing on the weight of containers the lashing systems and technology, loading systems and stowage planners will all be crucial to the investigations, but it may also be necessary to look at the enforcement methodology for a global industry which is globally regulated, yet where those regulations are unevenly applied by regional port state control (PSC) bodies.
IMO regulations VI/5 and VII/6 of the 1974 SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea] Convention “Require cargo units and cargo transport units to be loaded, stowed and secured throughout the voyage in accordance with a Cargo Securing Manual (CSM) approved by the Flag State Administration and drawn up to a standard at least equivalent to the guidelines developed by the IMO,” according to the regulations.
Commercial pressures placed on masters to meet vessel schedules, with the unspoken or at least a loosely implied, threat to their job if they fail to comply, even if this means leaving port with unsecured cargo.
An anonymous master, we will call him Ben Jones, alleged that ships are leaving port without lashing operations having been completed. He said that on occasions, “The duty officer has been under pressure to sail the vessel on time, and this has resulted, on rare occasions, the vessel leaving port before all lashing has been completed.”
Gaurav Sharma, a master who has worked with many of the world’s largest container lines and who, for the last eight years, said that he has heard other masters allege that in the rush to leave port operators “are not putting the proper lashings on containers and in some ports ships are not completely lashed, they generally blame it [losses] on a vessel’s lashing gear, which might not always be the case.”
Sharma, who says he now works for a reputable and safe company, said “If a ship is in coastal waters and there are just a few boxes to be lashed there may be some lashing completed while the vessel is sailing. However, some terminals try to force the crew to complete the lashing at sea. But the ship staff must stand their ground as lashing of containers does not come under the job responsibilities of the crew.”
Interestingly, Sharma argues that European and US ports lack lashing gangs and so the likelihood of vessels leaving port without cargo properly secured are far greater in these regions than in Asian or African countries.
Moreover, the failure to lash is not due to a lack of regulation, but rather an enforcement issue. “We don’t need more regulations we need better enforcement of the existing regulations and better training for junior officers and mates and proper training for [cargo] planners,” Sharma explains.
In response to questions regarding the operational aspects of cargo lashing, WSC, which represents the liner shipping companies, pointed out that, “Investigations normally cover both operational and technical matters. When it comes to lashings, each ship has a Class approved Cargo Securing Manual (CSM) dealing with lashing procedures, inspection and re-tightening during the voyage. Carriers have a great focus on safety, and there is no reason to believe that the CSM was not complied with.”
Part Two of this mini-series of stories will concentrate on the regulatory landscape and how the rules and the way they are applied affect the shipping industry.