Some sink straight away, others drift for months. If you hit one, it can sink your boat. Dick Durham investigates if containers are a real risk to cruisers

Are shipping containers a real risk to cruisers?

The captain on the bridge of a 340m-long ship carrying 4,000 containers gets a forecast of storm force 10 winds within 24 hours. Does he slow down or plot a fresh course to try avoid the worst of the weather?

The chances are he will do neither. There are hundreds of high streets in the UK waiting for the goods packed in containers stacked up 50ft high above his deck.


Demand and deadlines are such that ships’ masters may not be able to alter course or speed to avoid bad weather

‘Today’s schedules have put incredible pressures on ships’ captains to speed up and make the next port. If they hit bad weather the tendency nowadays is to go through the storm at the same rate of knots making them more susceptible to damage,’ says shipping consultant John Fossey, editorial director of Containerisation International, the industry’s magazine.

Storms seek out the weaknesses in container ships. Have the containers been stowed correctly? It is a complex art. The steel boxes can be loaded with top-of-the-range Mercedes-Benz cars, or J-cloths: it’s the responsibility of the stevedores loading the ship to make sure the boxes with the J-cloths, not the Mercedes saloons, are on the top of the stack, even if the Mercedes are being discharged first.


The bottlescrews used to secure containers are seen as a potential weakness

Heavy weather exposes bad stowage: containers can collapse, buckle and fall into the sea. Another problem is believed to lie with the rigging screw-style rods which secure the containers.

Studies are being carried out into the reliability of this bracing system which holds the containers in place – many in the industry suspect that Fully Automated Twistlocks (FATs) are failing and causing stacks to fall over, even in calm weather. Some analysts believe their failure played a part in the loss of up to 500 containers in 2006 alone. One theory is that vibrations from big seas are causing twistlocks to release.


There are question marks over the twistlocks that secure a stack together

Ageing containers are another problem. The average cost of each one is about £1,200 and they have a shelf life of around 12 years. Care must be taken to check them for signs of wear: they get bashed about as they are in constant use and eventually will collapse unless replaced.

Lost containers

January 2007 Container ship Napoli beached at Branscombe, Devon, after a storm. 200 containers lost, some washed up on the Devon coastline, others drifted out in the English Channel.

February 2006 P&O container ship Nedlloyd Mondriaan lost 58 containers in the North Sea. Nine were washed up on the Dutch island of Terschelling.

March 2001 Panamanian ship Choyang Park lost 81 containers in the Atlantic.

January 2000 Moroccan-registered container ship Oued Ziz lost 10 containers 20 miles SE of the Isle of Wight.

January 2000 Hong Kong-registered ship OOCL America lost 300 containers during a Pacific storm.

October 1998 Container ship APL China lost 406 containers in a storm in the US Pacific North West region.

February 1997 Ship Tokio Express lost 62 containers in the English Channel off Cornwall.

Does the industry care?


Bad weather and can play havoc with container stacks

Up to 120 million containers are moved around the world each year, yet the industry claim just 0.001% (1,200) are lost overboard. More accurate figures of lost containers are kept by insurers and shipping companies, but they won’t divulge statistics.

‘The industry doesn’t believe this is a big issue,’ said John Fossey, editorial director of Containerisation International. ‘Of much greater concern to them is what’s in the lost containers.’ A cargo of dangerous chemicals can damage the marine eco-system and a salvage operation may have to be launched. Eventually, most containers will sink when the door seals break down. If it’s damaged it may sink immediately – then it’s a case of ‘out of sight out of mind.’ Lost containers are not a widespread problem,’ claimed Fossey, ‘but of course it’s tragic when a yachtsman hits one.’


Finely-tuned supply chains can pressurise skippers into forging on when they should slow down

Methods to make lost containers safer have been considered and mostly ruled out. Having door seals that dissolve was one idea dropped because the seals need to be weather-tight to cope with rain and spray.

Painting containers in bright fluorescent colours has also been considered. But refrigerated containers need to be white to reflect sunlight. Companies also want their containers painted in corporate colours.


How many containers were lost over the side in this incident?

The growing threat of terrorism may yet concentrate industry minds about tracking container movements. Fears that a container could be used to house a ‘dirty’ bomb (using conventional explosive and nuclear waste) are a major concern. The industry is looking at fitting containers with radio data tags, though this would follow the container’s journey by road and rail to and from the shipyard, not in the open sea – even though technology exists to track containers via satellite and GPS. Another way to limit container losses would be to put extra ships in the schedule enabling them to slow down in heavy weather.

Let’s hope that more lives are not put at risk before the industry acts to solve this problem.

Do yachts hit containers?

2006 42ft yacht Moquini was found floating upside down 500 miles off the SW coast of South Africa. Yacht designer Alex Simonis has blamed a container for the mystery sinking. She’d lost her keel and six crew were missing presumed drowned.

2003 Offshore 33 pilot-house ketch, Lycaena, sank after hitting an object – possibly a container – 20 miles south of St Catherine’s Point, Isle of Wight. Crewman Martin Taylor, 50, told YM she was under power making 6 knots when she ‘stopped dead, slewed over and lay on top of this thing, whatever it was’.

2001 130ft superyacht Silver Cloud damaged her stern gear on what was believed to be a container floating in the English Channel. She limped in to Southampton for repair.

2000 During the Vendée Globe, Ellen MacArthur’s Kingfisher was thought to have hit a container north of the equator sailing at 10 knots. ‘All of a sudden we ground to a halt with a gut-wrenching noise of ripping carbon,’ Ellen told YM. ‘As I leapt on deck, I saw half a daggerboard and the tip of the rudder drifting away. There were signs of rust in the water. I cannot say for sure that it was a container, but it was the most likely thing to be submerged and give that kind of unforgiving impact.’

2000 Two UK Yachtmaster candidates died when their Farr 38, Rising Farrster, capsized on passage to Sydney, Australia. Nathan Lawrence of Cowes-based Leisure Management International, which ran the course, told YM: ‘That the yacht hit a container is a possibilty. It is a well-travelled route and there is a lot of debris there.’

1999 Sir Robin Knox-Johnston saw several containers awash while competing in the Clipper Race. ‘These things are a bloody menace,’ Sir Robin told YM. He reportedly hit a container and was holed while sailing Enza, the giant catamaran in the 1993 Jules Verne Challenge.

1994 During the BOC Challenge Round the World Race, yachtsman Josh Hall’s Open 60 Gartmore sank off Brazil after striking what he thought was the corner of a container. ‘It was the most horrendous landing you could imagine. The boat reared up and then there was the most incredible rending sound as the bow came down. It was almost as if we’d run aground.’ He was rescued by a fellow competitor.

1988 OSTAR singlehanded transatlantic race from Plymouth to Newport, USA. Dutch competitor Roel Engels’ 34ft yacht Doortje hit a container in mid-Atlantic and sank. The Dutch sailor was rescued by a fishing boat.