Addressing dangers of lost containers

Published on June 4th, 2021

A presentation titled, ‘The Dangers of Lost Shipping Containers to small vessels and recreational sailors’, was given in a workshop on Lost Containers by World Sailing at European Maritime Day on May 20, 2021.

The presentation was delivered on behalf of World Sailing by Sir Alan Massey, a Vice Admiral Royal Navy and former CEO of the UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency who, amongst other things, now leads the World Sailing delegation to the International Maritime Organization (IMO)

Here are the presentation bullet-points:

Why lost containers are a danger to small vessels
• There are lots of them!
• Containers often float, semi-submerged, with only a small part showing.
• There is no consistent ability to track or trace them.
• They are invisible to small vessels sailing at night.
• And very difficult to spot in daytime.

What damage can they do?
• The sharp corners of containers can pierce the hull of fiberglass yacht.
• Collision damage below the waterline can be catastrophic, and boats can sink.
• If a container hits the keel of a yacht at speed, the keel may be wholly or partially removed, leading to capsize or sinking.
• On modern yachts with deep, hydrodynamically efficient rudders, the rudder can be damaged or the whole rudder post broken off.

How big is the problem?
• The World Shipping Council estimates that between 2008 and 2019, an average of 1,382 containers were lost overboard at sea annually.
• Every one of these containers presents potential risks to safe navigation, the safety of life and the environment.
• We are aware of many contacts with containers by sailing vessels, fishing vessels, and their gear.

What is the impact on sailors?
• Hard data is difficult to obtain, and it’s not always clear what objects have been actually struck. So we should keep a sense of proportion.
• In the 2015 Transat Jacques Vabre Race, “French Tech Rennes St Malo” was badly damaged by a container and forced to retire.
• In the 2016 Vendée Globe Race, there were five retirements caused by collisions with floating objects.
In the 2019 Transpac Race, the trimaran “Maserati” damaged one of her hulls, again potentially by a container.
• This week the yacht insurance company Pantaenius was advised that the yacht “Panacea” was sunk, almost certainly by a container, off the coast of Kefalonia in Greece.
• The risks are real!

Can sailors avoid them?
• It’s difficult! A semi-submerged container will rarely show up on radar. But…
• … Personal Locator Beacons, for example, attached to sailors’ lifejackets could be adapted for containers.
• If such devices were fitted to containers, then small vessel crews could sense and avoid them.
• … and those mainly concerned with the environmental impact of lost containers would be able to find and recover them.

What is World Sailing doing about it?
• Along with other authorities, we’re trying to change the law.
• We recently supported a new IMO workstream on lost containers that has the full agreement of the 27 EU Countries, and many others.
• And we were delighted that the Maritime Safety Committee last week endorsed a new output regarding:
‘Development of measures regarding the detection and mandatory reporting of containers lost at sea that may enhance the positioning, tracking and recovery of such containers’. This is very good news.

What we are hoping for
• Wider recognition of the dangers posed to small craft.
• A simple, cheap, technology solution to locate containers lost overboard.
• Continued EU pursuit of new ISO standards for locating and containers when lost at sea.
• A tracking and reporting system to aid collision avoidance and to enable container recovery.
• International support for such measures, in order to protect the safety of life and the environment.

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