The director of the upcoming Robert Redford film “All Is Lost” didn’t invent the idea that a sailboat could hit a drifting shipping container at sea. In the film, to be released Oct. 18, such an accident precipitates a dramatic life-and-death struggle when the damaged yacht with its navigation systems disabled runs into a nasty storm.
But it’s hardly fiction. Online cruising forums are filled with tales and photos of sailboats slamming into drifting containers far from land. As one sailor remarked wryly, “It was not my happiest moment at sea.”
Containers topple off of the sides of ships for any number of reasons: heavy seas, faulty lashings or ships running aground or breaking apart. Early in my days as a maritime reporter for The Journal of Commerce, I got a tip from a maritime lawyer to call a certain steamship line because one of its vessels had just arrived in New York from Europe with 17 fewer containers than it left with after encountering a winter storm. One common reason this — and other scenarios such as container stacks collapsing — could have happened is well-known and preventable: overweight containers.
In just one example, the Maersk vessel Deneb keeled over at its berth at Algeciras, Spain, in June 2011. An investigation determined that one in 10 containers on board the ship were between 1.9 and 6.7 times their declared weight.
Dozens of other instances have been cited of overweight containers crashing onto docks because they were too heavy for the crane to lift, overturning yard equipment and endangering dockworkers. Overweight containers are suspected of playing a role in the MOL Comfort splitting in half, although it’s yet to be proved.
The reason goes back to the origin of the supply chain. Shippers around the world — certainly not all of them but enough — ignorantly or, more often, intentionally pack containers well beyond allowable weight limits and then declare an acceptable weight on shipping documents, hoping it will go unnoticed.
Some countries combat this: In the U.S., all export containers get weighed under long-standing Occupation Safety and Health Administration rules tied to safety at marine terminals. Few other countries have such a requirement, despite an international rule under the Safety of Life At Sea Convention requiring the shipper to provide an accurate container weight to the carrier.
“The SOLAS convention as it exists right now requires the shipper to provide the carrier with an accurate container weight. Whatever the shipper declares is supposed to be correct, but there is no enforcement,” World Shipping Council CEO Chris Koch said.
The result is that stowage planners and container ship captains are largely powerless to prevent overloaded containers from being hoisted aboard their ships. As told in classics such as “Two Years Before the Mast,” a captain would stuff his sailing ship to the limit to increase his profit, but at least he knew his vessel and the risk he was taking. Today’s captains have no such visibility, either to overweight containers or the more serious scenario of misdeclared cargo.
That is wrong, and it explains the important effort under way at the International Maritime Organization to further combat overweight containers. That effort will come to a head later this month when an IMO subcommittee will vote on whether to accept a compromise hammered out at a subcommittee level that, while not everything container lines, dockworkers and other supporters were hoping for, will surely increase safety in the system.
Container lines represented by the WSC wanted all containers to be weighed after loading and sealing. They had the support of dockworkers and other maritime workers, ports as well as a major shipper group — a rare confluence of interests.
“U.S. exporters already have their loaded export containers weighed,” Koch said. “It’s been an OSHA requirement for years and has caused no delays or problems for efficient commerce.” But opposition from shippers in Germany and other countries stymied that effort. “We would have preferred that (mandatory weighing after sealing) to be the outcome, but there simply wasn’t the political support for this,” Koch said.
It led to a compromise that would allow shippers to weigh the contents of containers and any packaging materials separately before stowage and then declare the total weight — far from an insignificant additional step and one that supporters believe would enhance accountability and thus safety. “If they adhere to that and do as the intent is, it should produce an accurate weight which would be confirmed in a signed weight declaration,” Koch said.
Such a requirement wouldn’t take effect until later this decade, even if advanced at this month’s crucial IMO meeting. That would give all parties plenty of time to prepare. With trade continuing to expand, the problem will only get worse, unless something is done about it now.