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CSCL Indian Ocean grounding must serve as a wake-up call

The recent grounding of the 19,000 teu container vessel CSCL Indian Ocean was close to being a real catastrophe. But the experienced pilot reacted immediately, when the navigation system failed and prevented the worst from happening. The ship grounded hard on the soft banks of the river.

After initial attempts to pull the ship off the banks had failed, the Central Command for Maritime Emergencies (CCME), which took over the control of the salvage operations together with renowned salvage experts, decided to lighter the vessel as much as possible and commence a dredging operation around the giant ship. Eventually a winter storm and a spring tide in combination with 12 tugs of an aggregated 1,085 tons of bollard pull were needed to refloat the vessel safely.

Everything went extremely well and the situation was certainly handled in a very professional manner, with very little interruption of the regular business and without any oil pollution. No doubt, the Port of Hamburg has proven that it is very well prepared to handle such emergencies.

Regardless, however, this is a wake-up call for the entire maritime industry. The ships are getting bigger and the ports are struggling worldwide to cope with the issues created by the ultra large container vessels (ULCVs).

Which ports along the trade route are capable of pulling a 180,000 dwt vessel off the banks, once stranded? How do you discharge the containers when there is no crane big enough to reach out to the top tiers? How do you place a jack-up platform on the soft grounds of a muddy river? What do you do, if a river or a port entrance is blocked by one of those 400 m long vessels? Who pays for the costs of the ships, which are trapped and those which have to deviate?

I could go on with a long list of questions. All of the important questions have to be discussed and answers must be given in order to be best prepared for emergencies and protect the safety of the people, the environment and the port. There are physical limits to the size of ships and at the same time, there are port limitations, which must be considered.

CSCL is one of the most valuable customers of the port of Hamburg. Losing this carrier because of physical limitations of the port would be a severe financial and economical setback for the entire region. Hamburg is a hub port and a significant number of the containers discharged in Hamburg are transhipped to their final destinations.

The ULCVs are the preferred size in the Far East-Europe trade and until someone proves otherwise, they are here to stay. Therefore, we have to make sure that the coastal trade lanes and the river ports are always safe for these new giants of world trade.

Tobias Koenig

Tobias is the managing partner of Lexington Maritime, focusing on market deficiencies and opportunities in the maritime industry. He was previously the founder and majority shareholder of Koenig & Cie, an investment firm with more than $6bn on its books. He sold the firm to private equity investors and now works in Hamburg and New York.


  1. This article summaries the issues associated with operation of these gigantic vessels and clearly highlights concerns which must be addressed if they are to continue operation without similar incidents occurring.

  2. And what will happen if one goes on fire, even if it at dockside? Are port Fire Fighters equipped to reach the highest containers?

  3. I agree with you. The port of Hamburg needs to adress it’s future which is i.e. linked to the size of ships coming and going. Isn’t it fair to say: the ship has to fit the port and not the port has to fit the ship?

    What I found annoying about social media discussions right after the grounding of CSCL Indian Ocean ( that enemies of dredging river Elbe’s bed took advantage claiming the incident took place only because of the size of the ship. An arguments in contra was that technical defects can occur anywhere and could have serious consequences even in deepwater ports.

    What’s your opinion, Mr Koenig? Can Hamburg afford operating in relatively shallow waters or is the port’s future linked to becoming safer accessible for the biggest of the big ships?

  4. This is not only an issue for the port of Hamburg. This concerns all ports worldwide. The ships seem to get bigger, pushing the limits. The accessibility of a port is a key issue, especially for its role as a hub. Hamburg might lose its transshipment containers, if the big ships cannot call at the port safely. On the other hand, the geographic location and the increased cargo volumes into the Baltic have already hurt the port. It is faster and cheaper to put the containers on a faster and bigger ship in Rotterdam or Felixstowe. Or even make a driver call with a main liner. The number of feeders calling the port peaked in 2007 at 250 per week. But many things have changed and I don’t believe that we will see this type of business again. The container services are always changing and this might have a negative impact on the port of Hamburg. Otherwise, Hamburg depends on the trades with China and Russia. In both trades, we are seeing declining cargo volumes. This is part of the reason why Hamburg’s container throughput is going down. On the other hand, it is a good disguise of the long term problems facing the port.

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