Reasons Behind Shipping Container Disasters

Mega container ships disaster, major threat to marine environment

7:04 AM, 3rd August 2013
Shipping Industry Disasters
(C) CN traveler

MOSCOW, RUSSIA: A report compiled by Voytenko Mikhail, editor-in-chief, Maritime Bulletin, presents a detailed opinion about MOL Comfort disaster. According to a letter received from an Ukrainian logistics company, many shippers declare a false weight of the goods loaded in containers (less than actual) not because they don’t want to pay extra freight. Extra weight is peanuts in comparison with really big money they may save or lose when clearing the goods in Ukraine, Russia and generally, all of former USSR republics. 

Shippers pay custom taxes depending on weight of the goods, they pay a percentage of the cost, which is calculated by a quotation directly related to the weight. There are so-called “grey” schemes of calculating and paying customs tax, saving the shippers sums in scale from hundreds to tens of thousands dollars on each container. Customs support and in fact, inspire such schemes, because they feed on them in a corruptive, frankly criminal, manner. The situation in this regard in Europe or US is unknown, but shippers there may also have their reasons to dissemble the weights. Furious resistance meeting any proposals or projects to establish some form of physical check of containers is grounded not only on obvious problems arising from such check, it’s a fear of very big financial losses on customs tax.     

It may be assumed then, that the number of overweight containers is alarmingly big. What induces the sharp increase of container ships dimensions? There may be several factors which just compel major carriers to design and build bigger and yet bigger ships.

Shippers associations, especially European association, successfully eliminated the liner conference system, greatly reducing liner sector financial sustainability. Listening to their arguments, one could easily believe the carriers are criminals even to think about profit, when instead, they should pay for the privilege of carrying goods belonging to the members of European Shippers Association.  

The rise in fuel cost added up to carriers woes by almost unbearable fuel expenses. Malpractice of Chinese carriers may add up, too, with their freight rate undercuts in order to get a bigger share of the market. Taking all together, major carriers were left with little choice indeed – either to increase the dimensions and capacity of the vessels, or lose the race to rivals. 18,000 TEU vessel is 35 per cent more fuel effective than 13,000 TEU one per 1 TEU. Bigger vessels is the only margin, the only choice the carriers can apply to stay afloat and meet the ends. They’ve been cornered by the several factors, and rather unwittingly, they found themselves in a crazy race for bigger, more cost effective, vessels. Situation went beyond theirs or anyone’s control.


MOL Comfort disaster is the first of its kind. Of course there was MSC Napoli accident of seemingly the same nature. Container ship MSC Napoli suffered cracks in hull while passing English Canal in rough weather in January 2007. Vessel, nearly broken in two, was towed to the English shore, offloaded and later dismantled. Nevertheless, there are some very important differences. MOL Comfort – dwt 90613, capacity 8100 TEU, built 2008. MSC Napoli – dwt 53409, capacity 4734 TEU, built 1991. MSC Napoli was almost twice less than MOL Comfort, vessel was 16-years old by the time of the accident and most important, 6 years before the disaster, vessel ran on the reef and suffered serious hull damages. Two holds were flooded. MSC Napoli underwent repairs in Da Nang, Vietnam, and there was an opinion that structural strength was negatively affected.

Rumors concerning inadequate structural strength of big container ships circulate around for quite a time, but of course, they didn’t result in independent study on the subject. Shipping industry, media including,  is controlled and ruled by major ship owners, by international maritime organizations and by IMO, in full accordance with the interests of major shipbuilders, class societies, major States, etc. For general public and major media, shipping is what the abovementioned bodies want shipping to look like.

Modern mega container ships pose two kinds of risk. The first one is the risk of suffering total loss or damage of the goods in containers, shipped by ocean-going liner container ships, due to losing or damaging containers in rough weather (APL China); sinking damaging of the vessel (MSC Napoli, Rena, MOL Comfort); fire (Hanjin Pennsylvania, Hyndai Fortune, MSC Flaminia, Amsterdam Bridge). This risk seems to be, at least yet, acceptable and not too big. Of course, one should take into account not only the percentage of lost or damaged containers in known disasters and accidents, against the percentage of the containers which were safely delivered.


Quite a number of accidents goes unreported and stays unknown. I’ve been told by a stevedoring company in Odessa, Ukraine, Black sea, that there is nothing unusual in finding one damaged or destroyed by fire or explosion container, and damaged surrounding containers. Most of such accidents happen during summer time. Fire or explosion usually is caused by overheated flammables or explosives, with one of the main culprits being Chinese fireworks, often declared as some general merchandise. By miracle or luck, most of such accidents don’t develop into major fire, but from time to time luck turns the other way, and here come Hanjin Pennsylvania, Hyndai Fortune, MSC Flaminia, Amsterdam Bridge or the latest in this line, Hansa Brandenburg. There is a substantial number of containers damaged by overweight containers, too.

Four container ships suffered major accidents during year 2012, with some 10,000 TEU + on board. Unknown number of containers were lost overboard, destroyed or damaged by fire or explosion, or bad weather, or due to other reasons. The total number of destroyed or damaged containers annually may be tens of thousands, but definitely not hundreds of thousands. The container trade volume on main world routes (Transpacific, Transatlantic, Europe Asia) is estimated as some 40,000,000 TEU annually. The risk of losing container or damaging it is less than 0.1 per cent, if we’re to accept the number of damaged containers as some 50,000 TEU, which seems to be an inflated figure. Those figures demonstrate, that the risk of maritime container transportation is quite acceptable, from the point of view of shipper. It’s very low, close to non-existent.

But there is another risk, which is much more serious in its consequences, than the risk the shippers have to face. Also, that risk has much bigger statistical probability, than mere commercial risk of container to be lost or damaged. Actually, the risk I’m talking about is imminent, and may happen any time anywhere. It’s the risk of a major fire on board of ocean-going mega container ship. In year 2012 there were two major fires on board of two ocean-going container ships, MSC Flaminia and Amsterdam Bridge. In this year, two major fire accidents were already recorded – fire on a fore section of mv MOL Comfort, and fire on board of mv Hansa Brandenburg.

The risk such accidents bear is of basically different character. It is not the risk of commercial losses, it is the risk of disaster of catastrophic scale, threatening both people and nature. No one, including carrier itself, knows for sure, what are the true cargoes which are loaded in the containers.

Even known and declared as such, dangerous cargoes, carried any given time by any ocean-going container ship, are often carried in such quantities, that major fire may lead to a catastrophe. Take for example, major fire on board of MSC Flaminia in July 2012. Officially there were 67 containers, 20 and 40-foot, with dangerous goods. What was there unofficially, nobody knows, except authorities and the carrier, after they completed a clean-up of the scarred remnants of containers on board. Maybe there weren’t any other dangerous goods, declared as non-hazardous. Maybe there were such goods, and maybe it’s because of their nature disabled and abandoned by the crew MSC Flaminia was refused shelter by all European coastal States. UK was the first, and rumors said UK rejected the shelter on the grounds, that the vessel was a threat to the ongoing Olypmic Games. Germany sheltered the vessel, simply because MSC Flaminia was German-flagged. MSC Flaminia’s English Canal transit was unprecedented in safety measures taken, including Navies escort. In year 2012 another major fire occurred on board of container ship Amsterdam Bridge in September.

This year, there was MOL Comfort disaster, again with major fire destroying the fore section of the vessel, while the aft section sank after vessel broke in two in June, crossing Indian ocean in not too severe storm. Another major fire disabled the container ship Hansa Brandenburg in July, again in Indian ocean, vessel was salvaged and towed to Mauritius.

In all known cases of major fire, crews abandoned the vessels almost immediately, even though in some accidents, like the MSC Flaminia or Hansa Brandenburg, or Amsterdam Bridge, there wasn’t any seeming danger to the crews, except the risks of unexpected and unpredictable explosions, and of contamination, also of unknown character. Be those vessels of other types, loaded with other cargoes, like bulk carrier or general cargo vessel, they wouldn’t be abandoned in such a hurry.

In all known cases of major fire, carriers, with the evident support of the authorities, did their best to hide the true scale of the disasters, or the risks of possible disasters. In MSC Flaminia case, the insider leaked the information on dangerous containers to Maritime Bulletin. If not him, the public wouldn’t ever find out, why MSC Flaminia turned into a modern Flying Dutchman, with near-hysterical rejects of the coastal States to provide a shelter.

The next disaster is sure to come. It’s not a probability, it’s inevitability. The only questions are – when and where, and what vessel will be stricken. Will it be a vessel of now moderate capacity of some 5,000-8,000 TEU, or mega ship with a capacity exceeding 10,000 TEU? Several times the alarming opinions of safety experts were voiced by most daring industry media, but they went unnoticed, and vanished without a trace in bottomless abyss of the internet. Experts said in no-nonsense expressions, that the major fire on board of mega container ship with some 10,000 TEUs + on board, will become uncontrollable, even if the vessel will be within the reach of all existing fire fighting facilities, such as powerful salvage tugs fitted with water cannons, or land fire fighting teams in unrestricted numbers. One has to take into account, besides the force and scale of the fire, the risks of massive contamination and big explosions.

There are, seemingly, two ways to reduce or eliminate the risks described above. One is to return to smaller size container ships, not exceeding 4,000-5,000 TEU capacity. This way is unrealistic, because it goes against the main trends of the world economy, no less. Another way is to physically check each container, prior to loading it on board of ocean-going container ships. This will make the container shipping about as safe, as it can be. But it won’t come cheap, with major shippers to suffer most. Major shippers are politically, a powerful pack, little doubt exists they’d successfully bar all the attempts to implement a thorough physical check, at present stage. It will take one or two disasters of catastrophic scale with human losses, to neutralize major corporations unwillingness to spend more money on safety. All we have to do is to wait. Catastrophe is sure to come.

© Voytenko Mikhail, editor-in-chief, Maritime Bulletin



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