The Container Conundrum

Published on January 2nd, 2017

The adventurers that seek races and records when circumnavigating the world once had only two worries – fierce storms and drifting ice. But a third foe might now be the worst – unidentified floating objects. Even its acronym – UFO – is ominous.

Of the 29 solo starters competing in the eighth Vendée Globe, damage thus far has derailed 11, with UFO collision listed as the cause by five skippers. In one instance the IMOCA 60 was nearly ripped in half by what was believed to be a floating container.

The loss of containers in transit is nothing new, but the rise in global trade has increased shipping traffic, which by default has littered the ocean with more lost cargo. Is there a solution in sight for this problem? Scott Boye is doubtful. Here he explains:

No shipping line willfully drops containers over the side. The loss is primarily due to storm conditions, and by the time containers go overboard, the ship itself is at risk.

In the past thirty years, I’ve seen two containers awash when sailing offshore. The first was in broad daylight and was obviously a square metal box. It was floating with about a foot of the container visible, waves breaking over the top. The second was in morning twilight and based on the way waves were breaking over it, those of us on watch concluded it was a container.

In both cases the encounters dominated my thoughts for the rest of the race, especially during night watches. I honestly can’t imagine the extent of damage a container could do to a fiberglass yacht in a collision.

But I’ve had experience from both sides of the issue.

For years I worked exporting building materials. Think 2×4’s and plywood loaded in containers and shipped across the Pacific. I had four containers lost overboard during the time I was shipping materials overseas. All four times were in the depths of winter and every time was an incredible hassle dealing with the shipping line, the freight forwarder, and the insurance company.

From a strict bottom line, I lost money each of those times. The soft costs of time and honor lost with my customers probably doubled my hard costs. It was something that worried me every time we made a shipment from November through March.

I also pondered the irony of possibly hitting one of “my” containers while racing. The chances were incredibly low but it gave me pause while offshore.

The bad news (or good news, depending on your point of view) is that from a statistical standpoint, the issue is miniscule. According to gCaptain, the average from 2008 to 2013 is 546 containers lost per year. That’s out of 120 million containers shipped. As a result, the outcry for solutions is limited.

Over the years there have been suggestions of some sort of water soluble device that would unlock the doors of a container, allowing the contents to spill out and the container to sink. From a safety standpoint, that seems reasonable to me. From a pollution standpoint, it still puts garbage in the water.

To raise the sides of a ship, to prevent the loss, will raise the center of gravity and decrease ship safety along with reducing containers shipped. It all adds up to higher shipping costs which the consumer will pay for. Bottom line, given the scale of the problem, it is cheaper to lose cargo than prevent the loss.

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