Michael Barrass, RSA Marine Risk Management Consultant
The grounding of the Ever Given in the Suez Canal highlights the need for greater regulation and risk management of mega carriers.
Container ships are the workhorses of the globalised economy, essential for the transport of goods around the world. Around the time of the 2008 financial collapse, the term “mega carrier” was used to indicate a container ship with a capacity of over 10,000 TEU (twenty-foot equivalent unit, one 20-foot container equals one TEU). Since then container vessels have grown at a rapid pace, faster than any other ship type and we now see some reaching 21,000 TEU capacity. Mega carriers have achieved cost savings due to economies of scale, but what are the downsides? The recent blocking of the Suez Canal by the mega carrier, Ever Given, has put the associated risks firmly under the spotlight, and it is clear that more work needs to be done to manage those risks.
International ship building regulations are toughening to avoid fire risks, but other regulations have not kept pace with the size of vessels. At present, mega carriers must have at least one water mist lance that can be inserted into a container on fire and at least four mobile water monitors that can attack the fire from forward and aft. However, consider a crew of 17, a fire party of 4 each carrying 15kg water monitors onto a container stack bays 12 high and 24 containers wide, at multiple locations, with minimal space to work in and potentially hazardous smoke. This is before the ship starts rolling. Perhaps ALL mega carriers should have fixed water monitors that can provide four jets of water anywhere onboard as a minimum requirement?
In addition to fire risk, a recent Bloomberg article revealed that containers are falling overboard at the fastest rate in seven years - why? Are crews able to check all 20,000 container lashings or do they have to rely on stevedores doing the securing correctly? Is poor maintenance of lashing equipment a factor? Modern lashing systems have some unique safety features which maybe not be known by new crews or inexperienced stevedores? Ship speed has also been increasing, but is parametric rolling and its effect on mega carrier stability fully understood by crews? More likely it is a combination of all those factors, and solutions are available, such as lashing equipment being inspected more frequently and securing forces to take into account greater heeling angles. Now it is time to implement them.
The recent blockage of the Suez also highlighted the size of these mega carriers in relation to the width and depth of waterways or ports. In 2016, the Panama Canal was widened to allow mega carriers, and the Suez has brought forward plans for further deepening. In some ports, these ships can only transit during high tidal windows, or in some instances ports are moved (Antwerp) so that locks are not required. On top of this, older port authorities are continually challenged to accept larger ships, with less under keel clearance.
Another factor is that the cost to salvage the largest existing containerships in case of accident are increasing because of the lack of salvage equipment and technology capable of removing a wreck of this size. Remember the pictures of the EverGiven and a JCB removing sand from the bow of the vessel. There are also a limited number of shipyards in the world capable of repairing them. Even greater problems are forecasted in the case of an accident situated in a remote area far away from the repair facilities. Therefore, the costs for such a scenario are unclear. Are the large shippers and manufacturers taking higher risks having all of their goods on one vessel, instead of dividing it over several smaller ones?
Despite highlighting the negatives, I am not against mega carriers and the benefits they deliver are hard to argue against. However as the number of mega carriers continues to increase, I feel we need to carefully consider, understand and look to manage the risks and prevent the sector from becoming more exposed than ever.