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Is box shortage at root of overboard loss increase?

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According to the World Shipping Council and based on a three year running average, something like 1382 containers are lost overboard each year. That figure is described in the organisation’s 2020 triennial report covering 2017-2019 as being based upon information from its members and extrapolated to cover all other container vessels in the world fleet. It is difficult to know how accurate the figure is and there are few other reliable sources of information. However, there are other opinions that put the figure much higher.

In describing its methodology of compiling statistics, the WSC says it used to class losses as either catastrophic involving 50 or more boxes, or non-catastrophic where smaller numbers were involved.  By that criteria, the loss of 42 containers from the Ever Smart in October would not be considered catastrophic and even the MAIB’s official report classed it as a ‘less serious’ marine casualty. Certainly the number of ships with such obvious signs of problems as on Ever Safe must be quite small but smaller losses involving fewer boxes could easily go unnoticed on arrival in ports.

WSC contends that the trend for containers lost overboard is a downward one although the figures do not generally support that point of view. For sure the losses in 2017 and 2019 were below average but they could be considered unusual as they are the only years since 2013 that are show figures below 1,000 whereas in the five years prior to 2013 only one year was above 1,000.

The year 2013 was an exceptional one because it was the year Mol Comfort was lost with its cargo of 4,293 boxes. Taking that incident out of the picture, 2013 would also have been well in excess of 1,000 boxes lost.

Last year will not feature in WSC figures until the next report but already the figures for 2020 are known to be over 2,000 and will probably end up in excess of 3,000. This is mostly due to the One Apus which lost over 1900 boxes but there are others as well. In December the Munich Maersk was speculated as being involved in the loss of 200 or more boxes near the Wadden Islands. Maersk has refuted the reports, but fishermen and the Dutch coastguard are certain that boxes have been lost from some vessel. Also featuring in the next report will be Maersk Essen with over 750 boxes apparently lost in January this year.

In previous years, the Rena, Mol Comfort and the El Faro were total losses including the ship itself but all of the losses in 2020 and in 2021 have so far been of cargo only with the ships relatively undamaged and all safely in ports. Safe in ports is one thing but there are big costs involved some of which may be covered by General Average although as far as cargo interests are concerned declaring GA is adding insult to injury.  From the operator’s point of view, the continued losses are drawing the attention of PSC inspectors, especially in Australia.

Condition of containers and securing is major concern

Although the number of incidents with big losses is small, the question is whether there is an underlying reason. The MAIB report into Ever Safe found problems with both stowing practices and the securing equipment some of which was very corroded. In Australia, AMSA is clearly focussing on this. After the loss of around 50 boxes from APL England in May 2020, Michael Drake, AMSA Acting General Manager of Operations said, “Rusted cargo securing points, improper lashings, and exceeding stack weight limits have all contributed to these incidents and ship operators should be on notice that non-compliance will not be tolerated in Australia.”

Clearly there are problems with securing that is happening more and more frequently. It is possible that the shortage of containers that has been a problem in recent months may be partly to blame. It could be that in an effort to secure containers, some boxes that should have been sent for repair or withdrawn entirely are still being used. A damaged corner casting or weak and damaged walls will cause problems. This may be discovered when the reports from One Apus and Maersk Essen surface but it could be some time before that happens. In the meantime it may be prudent to pay more attention to lashing equipment and container condition.

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