Shipping containers lost at sea

Published on February 10th, 2015

Shipping containers lost at sea from ships are like growlers lurking on the world’s busiest shipping routes, says an official report, and there are more and more of them. Yachting World’s Elaine Bunting reports…

When you are offshore and looking at empty water stretching all around, the odds of running into something barely visible seem very slim. Yet the hazard is common enough to warrant its own yachting acronym in France. There they are called UFOs: unidentified floating objects, and chief among them these days are shipping containers lost at sea.

Sometimes these UFOs are marine creatures, basking sharks or whales mostly, identified perhaps by blood in the water from the injured animals. It’s sad and gruesome, dangerous on both sides and very difficult to prevent.

Statistically, though, perhaps a greater risk is from semi-submerged container lost overboard from a ship. The Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, a department of US oceanography and weather body NOAA, published an extensive report on the loss of shipping containers worldwide. It makes for chilling reading.

The report notes that containerised maritime trade ‘grew eight-fold from 1985 to 2007, and worldwide there are now approximately 5 to 6 million containers in transit at any given moment.’ An estimated 10,000 shipping containers fall from ships every year.

The reasons for these losses are rough weather, inadequate or faulty securing systems, and (quite often) miscalculations of container weights when a ship is being loaded. The latter was a contributory factor in the loss of the MSC Napoli off the Devon coast in 2007. Around a fifth of the 660 containers on the deck of the ship were found to be heavier than their declared weights, some by as much as 20 metric tonnes.

I had always assumed that anything but an empty container would sink reasonably quickly if it were lost overboard, but that’s not the case, and the report has some worrying conclusions. – Read on

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