How many containers are lost over the side from ships at sea each year? The truth is that nobody knows and there are wide variations in the various estimates, which range from “upwards of 10,000” to “an average of about 1700”. They are not figures that are widely advertised, by the lines which have been unfortunate enough to be so afflicted.

Should there be rather more transparency over this matter? Certainly, when an entire deck stack has been lost, their absence tends to be noticed at the next port and questions are asked by the questing media. But in many cases, especially when the loss takes place far from land on a deep sea service, only the cargo insurers, and presumably the sorrowing owners of the cargo, will be made aware of their failure to arrive. Accurate numbers are hard to come by.

It also seems to be a regrettable fact that the size of the ship carrying the boxes does not appear to have any relevance to the incidence of such losses. Both large and small vessels have been affected. While smaller vessels are more prone to damage from boarding waves, which may take boxes overside, violent accelerations and heavy or parametric rolling have been responsible on even the largest ships. Faults with the containers, their lashing or the cargo inside them have all been blamed for losses due to collapsed stacks.  

Lost containers can be a hazard for all sorts of different reasons. There are regularly “near misses” reported by small craft which claim to have nearly hit a semi-submerged container, while even if the boxes have sunk in shallow water, they can be a major obstruction for fishing craft if their nets get caught in them. If they have dangerous goods in them, a range of other hazards, from pollution to personal injury, might have to be considered.

There are calls for the compulsory reporting of lost containers, along with better means of identifying them and their contents to coastal states and others who might encounter them. It has also been suggested that where these losses take place where salvage is practical, efforts should be made to salvage them. There have been calls for containers with dangerous good enclosed to be fitted with beacons, which need not be expensive, and which will greatly facilitate location and recovery.

On the other hand, recovery of containers can be an expensive proposition. Gard P&I Club reported that when 58 containers were lost in European waters, the seabed surveys and recovery and disposal of beached containers cost more than US$ 1m. The club reported that some US$5m were spent in searching and recovery of some 50 out of 150 boxes lost from a ship off the Chinese coast.

The IMO sub-committee on the carriage of cargoes and containers seems likely to pronounce on clearer rules to deal with lost containers. It may be however, that new rules for verifiable container weights may have a positive effect. But it is also said to be a positive sign that the latest generation of very large container ships are wider than their predecessors and thus will not be so prone to rolling. Fewer boxes will hopefully end up in the sea.

Author: The Watchkeeper                          Source: BIMCO