Buddhika Weerasinghe / Bloomberg via Getty Images
It would be tempting to hope that the recent shipwreck of the Ever-date container ship of 1,300 feet and 220,000 tons will ever be a one-off – just the case of a very large ship stranded in a narrow waterway.
But more than 100 ships of similar size are sailing the world’s waterways, and even larger ones are being built in Asia, creating logistical challenges and concerns about new accidents in the future.
Captain Andrew Kinsey, a senior maritime risk adviser for Allianz, a global financial services company, says with the tough weather in the North Pacific over the past year, a lot of containers have been overdone.
“We’ve seen some … spectacular cargo losses, with ships losing a lot of containers,” he says.
Part of the problem is the way ultra-large ships – capable of carrying 10,000 or more cargo containers – handle high piles of containers at sea, especially in strong winds.
Kinsey says one of the most significant cases occurred in November, when a Japanese-flagged ship, the ONE Apus, lost more than 1,800 containers containing cargo worth about $ 200 million, northwest of Hawaii during strong winds.
Kinsey says some of the container’s bindings failed, and the cargo, which was heading from China to the U.S., crossed over to the side. Other containers stacked on the ship collapsed and “collapsed like a house of cards,” he says.
Investigations into the incident continue, and the ship is now at sea.
Alan Murphy, executive director of SeaIntelligence, a research and consulting firm for container shipping in Copenhagen, says it’s hard to assess whether there has been an increase in the number of containers crossing the ship or whether transpacific container losses have only received more attention in the past year.
In November report, The World Shipping Council, an interest and lobby group for shipping lines, has found that the number of such incidents has been declining in recent years, although the report does not cover 2020.
There is no central, mandatory database for reporting container losses, so it is not known exactly how many containers fall into the sea, Murphy says.
“We have to wait for the ship line to cancel it for us,” he says.
Murphy says container ships are often overloaded with capacity today because demand for consumer products – from televisions to exercise equipment to edge washing machines – rose sharply during the pandemic.
“In the past, these mega-vessels have never bothered to board as full as they do now,” he says. “Obviously, the fuller the vessel, the higher the risk of an incident. If you’re only half full and you can store every container below deck, you’re not dropping any containers into the ocean.”
One of the reasons it has ever been so difficult to move out of the Suez Canal is because it was crowded with 20,000 equivalent 20 feet or TEU, the standard measure for freight containers. Murphy says that when he started the shipping industry 20 years ago, ships could accommodate about 6,000 TEUs.
“I remember people talking about absolute madness,” he says. “‘We’re crazy,’ you know, ‘why are we building these behemoths on earth? Will we ever be able to fill them?'”
In fact, some container ships can carry about four times that number, or 24,000 TEU.
Allianz’s Kinsey says concerns about the growing ships have been rising among marine risk analysts for some time. The stranding ever given in the Suez Canal is a “warning,” he says, “but it’s also, we’ve been trying to raise the issue for a long time. We’ve raised an issue of this magnitude, both in our annual security and shipping review and in speeches and papers for more than five years. “
Mike Schuler of gCaptain.com, a website with the maritime industry, says larger ships can create bigger problems. For example, if they swell in bad weather, container ships can be exposed parametric rolling.
“It’s intense rolling,” he explains.
Schuler says he has seen videos of ships rolling up to 40 degrees or more.
“And the top of the container fits on these ships, that’s about 150 to 200 feet in the air,” he says. “So you have all these forces while the ship was rolling and which in some cases crashed the cargo over the ship.”
Carrying more containers requires larger and wider ships – like the Ever-data – which means that their challenge is to navigate narrow waterways like the Suez Canal and find it harder to navigate when they get stuck.