Container ships have lost a lot of cargo during the northern hemisphere winter months in stormy weather and sea states. The biggest questions are why and how can this be avoided
Somewhere in the Pacific Ocean is a Maersk-owned support vessel collecting plastic rubbish to clean up the seas. It may soon be collecting the shipload of containers that have fallen off vessels in the past six months in the world’s oceans.
A series of incidents involving boxes falling off ships resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars of losses from ships operated by Ocean Network Express (ONE), Maersk Line, Evergreen Marine, APL and MSC. In the case of ONE and Maersk, this happened twice – they should have learned their lesson the first time.
Although accident investigation reports are not completed yet, there is evidence these incidents resulted from ships being struck by damaging waves.
Some have mitigating circumstances such as engine failure, leaving ships vulnerable to strong waves and high winds, but operators should be asked why vessels were sailing in adverse weather.
These accidents could be avoided by weather routeing and newly developed radar applications.
This issue could become worse if shipping is driven to implement IMO’s energy efficiency rules. Operators are already required to meet tight schedules, calculated with little leeway for slow voyage progress or weather avoidance, to save fuel and carbon emissions.
But voyage optimisation and just-in-time arrival must not lead to owners, operators and masters taking unsafe routes.
It is imperative to challenge the root causes behind accidents and near misses to understand why container ships continue to sail into trouble.
As the northern hemisphere moves into summer the risk from rogue waves lessens, but when sea states worsen, using weather routeing rather than voyage optimisation will help operators to prevent container losses, eradicating the cause of unsafe behaviours and poor voyage decisions.
Investing in weather routeing will not just to optimise voyages but reduce cargo-loss risk. Navigation radar software can also be used to identify and avoid potentially damaging waves.
Opening the argument to other shipping sectors, straying off the agreed voyage to get better connectivity for mobile phones is not to be encouraged.
This seems to have caused Wakashio’s accident in Mauritius. The Capesize bulk carrier crashed into the Indian Ocean island in Q3 2020 causing Mauritius’ worst-ever environmental disaster following safety lapses in navigation.
Ship operator Mitsui OSK Lines (MOL) says Wakashio changed course from the approved passage plan to within 2 nautical miles of Mauritius for better crew mobile phone communication. In its internal report, MOL says seafarers neglected appropriate watchkeeping, both visually and by radar and used a nautical chart without sufficient scale to confirm the accurate distance from the coast and water depth.
This accident and container losses highlight the need for better route planning and seamanship during transocean voyages, and for weather routeing and better decision making to improve safety and reduce environmental risks.