Whatever the details of the UK’s Maritime Accident Investigation Branch report on the 18th January 2007 structural failure and grounding of the MSC Napoli, scheduled for release on 22nd April, the container industry can expect to be walking around with painfully rapped knuckles for sometime afterwards. The size of the investigation and the importance that the MAIB places on it can be judged by the fact that 8m euro, around $13m, is understood to have been spent on computer simulation alone.
Last September saw the first shot across the industry’s bows with the release of the MAIB’s report on the February 2007 Annabella incident in the Baltic in which several containers in a stack collapsed during heavy weather with damage to three containers carrying a hazardous cargo, butylene gas. The usually restrained MAIB forcefully called for a code of practice for the industry to prevent further disasters: “(Napoli and Annabella) identify a compelling need for a code of practice for the container shipping industry”.
That call is likely to be reiterated with even greater force in the Napoli report itself. Early this year a MAIB official told MAC: “The investigation has been complex and has required in-depth research in several areas including the vessel’s structure and container vessel operation.”
These incidents are far from new. MAIB itself investigated similar issues surrounding a stack collapse, and leakage of a tank of hazardous material, in 2001. In 2006 at least 300 containers were lost in a half dozen incident in European waters and some estimated put the worldwide level of losses at 10,000 teu.
It is expected that the report will, in part, focus on how the speed of container operations has outstripped the speed of communications between the various parts of the transport chain, leading to the loss of control of stacking operations due to poor information flow between shippers, planners, the loading terminal and the ship itself arising from the ‘need for speed’.
Container accidents are expensive. According to the North of England P&I Club, of 16 cargo claims in 2007/2007 only two involved containers but those two accounted for 30 per cent of the $1m losses. Many of the increasing number of container-related claims occur in heavy weather. “Container losses and collapsed stows in heavy weather continue to occur,” says the club’s head of loss-prevention Tony Baker. ‘Such weather is not altogether unexpected and it has highlighted a number of areas of poor practice that need to be rectified if the industry is to keep a lid on spiralling claims costs.”
Baker says there are four principal factors behind recent incidents: failure of automatic twist-locks in lashing systems; failure to stow and secure containers in accordance with the ship’s cargo securing manual; mis-declared overweight containers; and failure to anticipate and minimise the effect of heavy weather.
Another issue that may be explored in the MAIB report is the lack of knowledge about the dynamic forces affecting container lashing systems. There has been little study of how the real-world compares to computer models and how they are affected by ship design. Marin, the Netherlands Maritime Institute, has a two-year ongoing study, Lashings@Sea, supported by eight ship owners, three lashing suppliers, three class societies and the Dutch Department of Transport.
At the moment, is seems, nobody really knows quite what’s going on when heavy seas and containerships get together at a time when the pressure is on to reduce lashing to cut turnaround times and costs.
Of concern also is that the rise in container accidents appears to parallel the introduction of fully automated locks, International Standards Organisation standards have not kept pace with the development of FAL systems, and destandardisation of container sizes have added more complexity to the mix.
Of course, the real question isn’t what the MAIB will say, it will certainly run along the lines of “get your act together”. The real question is whether anyone will be listening.