It has been a truly terrible winter in the North Atlantic, both for mariners facing the fury of the elements and managers wrestling with schedules all awry. To both these categories, arguments over whether the meteorological extremes are attributable to global warming and man’s contribution to this seem rather sterile. Bad weather is just something the shipping industry has to expect, and get on with.

It is probably too early to be sanguine about physical loss and damage, but it is notable that modern shipping seems better able to tolerate such extremes, compared to what happened in the past. Whatever the statisticians might say, even the worst weather this winter has had its parallels in earlier times, invariably accompanied by a shocking amount of death and destruction. In such times, it was not unusual for even big ships to disappear with all hands, or for vessels to limp into port with terrible heavy weather damage, hatches stove in and boats washed away. There is, thank goodness, less of this today.

We might mock the meteorologists when it rains unexpectedly, but there is no doubt that shipping is a good deal safer because of their expertise. Forecasts and weather routeing services really do help, as do the systems that communicate the very latest prognoses to ships at sea, virtually on demand. So masters are better at dodging the worst of the storms in their tracks, perhaps less dependent on their experience.

There is no doubt that it is invariably better to be in a big ship in bad weather than in one of more modest proportions and of course most classes of vessel have been subject to scale economies in recent years. Modern designs are arguably stronger, where the strength is needed, after terrible lessons were learned about the weight of boarding seas on bulkship hatchcovers. There might still be questions about the need for power, particularly with some of the so-called “eco” designs now entering service and which are designed for slow speed operations. Heavy weather, experience suggests, can sometimes assess the capability of such ships when attempting to make headway.

Deck cargo has always been an obvious weakness and this northern winter has seen a lot of containers and wood cargoes lost over the side. In the former case, it seems that the size of the ship is of little consequence if the unpredictable phenomenon of parametric rolling manifests itself, producing extreme and violent accelerations which may exceed the breaking loads of lashings. With deck stows getting higher and higher it could be that we will see the numbers of containers lost and damaged due to heavy weather markedly increase.

The wild weather has also played havoc with port operations, with ports closed, ships breaking adrift and vessels getting out of control in confined waters. Questions are being asked about the capability of shore side mooring equipment, with a number of cases of large ships equipped with high-tech mooring ropes wrenching bollards out of the quay in extreme weather. Are the port engineers keeping up with the technology employed on modern merchant ships and the strains they might put on their equipment?

It could be that this winter has been an exception and eventually, an element of normality to weather patterns will return. On the other hand, if this is a new pattern being established, ships and shipping may be forced to further adapt.

Author: the Watchkeeper                                               Source: BIMCO.