The oceans are becoming a large container terminal

Captain Javier Madiedo assesses why so many boxes are being lost at sea.

We continually read, see and hear news of hundreds of containers fallen into the sea from large containerships with their huge decks full of crumpled teu and feu.

The instability of the environment in which they navigate is the cause of these mishaps, but the origin of these accidents is in the design of the ships, the operations in the terminals, in the cargo lashing systems, the pressures for the minimum stay in port and the greatest economic savings in ship operations – all of them negatively influencing the safety of the ship and the crew.

The design of the ships and the distribution of weights define their behaviour when sailing in adverse conditions, drafts, stability, efforts, ship’s movement, etc.

Port operations are the most important component in the cause of this type of accident, due to the complexity of the operations, several points can be listed:

  1. The minimum stay requirement.
  2. Fast operations, with several cranes working simultaneously.
  3. Release of units that will remain onboard but must be unlashed to discharge other boxes.
  4. When complete or almost complete sections (bays) are unloaded without being able to use the ballasts, the strengths that the hull supports are enormous and facilitate its deformation.
  5. The pulls on the containers below those to be unloaded cause the lashing to loosen.
  6. Loading the top tiers with several cranes simultaneously working frequently involves more than 160 units per hour and up to 10 deck heights, which is difficult to control from the deck.
  7. Discharges and loads of hundreds / thousands of reefers that must be disconnected / connected and controlled by temperature.
  8. Loads of IMO, B / B, OOG etc.
  9. The containers are not perfectly or permanently regular and the support or lashing pieces between containers are not either, so once they gain height on the deck (usually from the 4th or 5th height) the columns are not perfectly vertical but take inclinations, so that the movements of the ship navigating in adverse conditions facilitates the collapse and the fall of containers.

If to all this complex operation we then must add food provisions, other supplies, inspections, sludge discharge, taking on fresh water, fuel and lubricant intakes, crew changes, repairs and workshops. We then begin to realise that the crews are under enormous pressure and may not be able to control how the containers are distributed and stowed by ports of destination and weight, perfectly stowed on their supports and with their correct lashing.

Upon completion of the operations, the ship is asked to leave in one hour, no more. They are very exceptional cases when a ship takes more docked time.

If they detect a wrongly positioned container, rectifying it is usually almost impossible since stevedore appointments have certain rules and schedules, assuming an excessive delay for that potential repositioning operation.

A feasible solution would be the appointment of surveyors, independent of the terminal, and stevedores who would certify to the captain the correct stowage and lashing of the cargo and keep a signed copy of the departure stability calculation.

The lashing of the containers on deck from the heights that cannot be lashed from the gangways is designed to be as fast as possible in both unloading and loading operations, but accident after accident shows that it is not effective for the safety of the crews, the ship nor the marine environment.

Insurance companies, IMO, SOLAS – all must act to avoid falling into the normalisation of this type of accident.


  1. You did forgot one cause.
    The size increase of these ships was so fast that nobody has any idea of the actual acceleration applying to lashing.
    Calculation are done but there is no way to calibrate them based on feedback or measurements.

    1. …. Can any traditional mariner accept the design of these ships. A stack of containers 9 high is impossible to secure properly for sailing through heavy weather . One glance at a fully loaded giant container ship tells me a disaster waiting to happen. Captains must pray for a calm passage .
      Glad I don’t have the responsibility any more.

      1. I don’t care how much lashing you put on it if the bottom box collapses which it will you lose everything.😷 I have over 40 years in the business specially on container ships I’ve been doing this before some of these captains were even born.

        1. And the captain’s and companys are the most intelligent people of the world….
          In two-tree accidents more, they going put 3or 4 containers higher , thinking to better stabilize the other’s…. BIG BUSINESS

  2. Here’s the bottom line;
    Chief Mates are accepting incorrect load plans and Masters are sailing their vessels, despite multiple discrepancies including stack weights errors, IMDG positioning, GM, BM, and TM errors.
    Chief Mates are not complying with STCW regs because planners keep them awake throughout the cargo operation with constant load plan changes.
    Shipping companies are refusing to make Chief Mates dayworkers by adding an extra 3rd Mate. All for the sake of profit.
    Flag states are clueless…
    No one can force the Chief Mate to accept an incorrect load plan or force the Master to sail the ship in an unsafe condition.
    No one can force the Master to push the vessel into heavy seas to stay on schedule.
    Many “3rd world” mariners are easily manipulated to rush and accept the final plan, even when its not correct. In fact its more the norm than the exception.
    Subservient, passive deck officers who think a completed checklist with a signature and a stamp are all that’s needed to be safe.
    Expect more disasters because its only getting worse.

    1. How sure you are that those easily manipulated you are talking about and involved on those incidents are from 3rd world mariners? Do you have solid stat?

    2. @Goober, what does the “third world” have to do with human nature? Are you implying that the so called “First World” mariners are naturally better? Your kind of thinking belongs in the goose stepping, flag waving, fascist era of years ago. The fact is that you’re simply redundant mate! Get over it!

    3. Another issue is poor stowage & securing of cargo inside the containers which in many cases are carried out by non-professional stevedores i.e. at the shippers` premises, use of wrong type of container-type etc. Have seen many examples of heavy cargo-items (ex steel-coils etc) inside STD-container-units which break loose during sea-voyage leading to damage/collapse of the container-unit/container-stack. In a survey published by one of the major P&I clubs some time ago it was also estimated that as much as 10-12pct of all containers transported worldwide, in way or the other, was incorrectly described wrt type of commodity, actual weight, DGM coding etc.

    4. So easy to blame the crew but you should consider also:
      1. This type of vessels were designed for europe-asia trade and not for trans pacific or atlantic trades where are completely different sea conditions ( e.g. length of the waves)
      2. Lashing module softwares are at least inaccurate
      3. Vgm is a joke and I an speaking from own experience
      4.edi plan never ( but never) reflects the reality( also own experience)
      5. What about lifetime of the lashing material, what about the wear and tear? Nobody is renewing the lashing material every 5 years lets say. Why? Do you think that after 2-3 years this items have the same strength?
      6. Poor qualification of central and local planners. One example: Manish Verma. I’ve never met an greater idiot. I remember that he said that imdg code is wrong ( he was trying to load ” on deck only” in the cargo hold)
      7. Pressure of the owner on the crew to “please” the charterer and his servants.
      8. After each departure and daily during the passage the crew is checking and tightening the lashing of the containers, flatracks and so on.
      So, the problem is more complex than that.

    5. You have hit the nail on the head. I got out of the business 20 years ago. However, I am in touch with my mates who are still sailing, and from what I hear, it is getting steadily worse (commercial pressures).

  3. Capt Jose Santos
    Feb 8th 2021
    Its very important to checking all containers’s structures because accordingly the hard stevedores
    Shore cranes the containers colapse….!!!

  4. These container losses are largely NOT accidents. A true ACCIDENT is an unpredicted “time & unforeseen circumstance”. As clearly shown in the above post, proper procedures could prevent many of these INCIDENTS!

  5. WRONG DESIGN AND PROJECTS of the huge cont ships . All ordered in China . Sorry -no professionals workers in this area -China

  6. This comment made by the author, Javier Madiedo, obviously you have no idea and never spent time at sea.

    “The instability of the environment in which they navigate is the cause of these mishaps.”

    Disgraceful that it has been published by Splash 24/7 also.

    However i am not surprised. Typical journalism at its best!

  7. No mention about parametric mention about the delay and congestion in US ports, that’s causing ships to sail at lower speeds only amplifying the effects of parametric rolling…

  8. Short Manning is definitely one amongst many problems plaguing the container. There is no iota of sympathy for the overworked officers because whatever happens the REST HOUR FORMS have to be filled correctly is the refrain, even if one has worked continuously contravening rules. The PSC inspections and inspectors are there to fill their checklist. The humane aspect of treating a mariner is overlooked by the Companies, and at times Flag States attitude and perception defies logic. The list of overlooking the technical,stowage and design etc problems on container is ever growing. The attitude of Ports and stevedores needs to change. Restacking of containers nearing completion of cargo operations is a taboo. Safety aspects in most cases are compromised. One thing which the Co’s believe is “nothing is proved unless documented” results in fudged documentation. This gung ho spirit is appreciated by the Co management ,so ethics and ethos like Johnny goes for a walk.

  9. It is really all because of the human selfishness and greediness .Every body wants to go to the max.

    1. To be honest the Stevedores don’t care about one are two getting killed they want production. Period they can replace you are me. It’s sad but very much true.

  10. The incident reports should be interesting to read. What will be the main cause(s) and the underlying cause(s)? What will the ‘human element’ section say?

  11. Tell that to charter and ships owner. Time is money. Shit do happen sometimes…you can try and send letters to insurance companies….

  12. In my opinion the issue is the height the containers are stacked. Which creates a lack of lashing on the higher tiers of containers.
    Most ships have elevated walkways where the lashing is performed. Typically this is up 3 or 4 containers high.
    So the 4,3,2 and 1 high containers are lashed down by rods connected to turnbuckles. But anything higher than that is reliant on the twist locking cones to hold them onto the one below it.
    I think the ships grew faster than innovations in securing their cargoes could be developed.

  13. There were several container over board accidents during the past years, like the Svendborg Maersk, the MSC Zoe or the CMA CGM G. Washington. Reading the accident reports available on the internet two things are of interest. Firstly the vessels had only a two tier lashing bridge. Everyone how has seen container stacks dancing on a hatch cover in heavy seas will agree that a higher lashing bridge up to the third or fourth tier will increase safety of ship and cargo. MSC Zoe belongs to MSC’s first batch of ULCC. Interestingly the next generation had a 3-tier bridge.
    The second point is that shipping companies, yards and certification groups are using relatively low transversal acceleration factors for their calculations. One can find figures of 0,65 g for the bow and 0,5 g for midships. This leads to remarkable rolling angles allowed. MAIB report on the G. Washington page 40 reads “Post-accident calculations conducted by BV established the roll limit for the given GM and transverse acceleration limits was 16.5”. And with such a recommendation you are sending a crew over the North Pacific in January! Of course the captain can reduce the roll by slightly changing the course. So blame the crew! But all the land-made calculations are based on a linear wave pattern. Freak waves, which suddenly “fill” a trough and non-linear wave-patterns, which are difficult to forecast, can cause a tremendous up righting lever-arm, especially with a ship having a large bow flare. And than you have a traversal g-force of more than 1 g! And this will crash the corner post of the 1. + 2. Tier containers. Read the relevant accident reports. One should know it and avoid speaking of unexpected bad weather. What I find astonishingly is that in respect to the known risks of “under-lashing” and very high GM values of partly laden container ships is that we have so few accidents with container over bord.

  14. Good on you captain thanks for your service must be a relief to have hung up your compass

  15. There’s only one reason why it allnhappened..The greediness of everyone involved to earn more money…And that’s the price!

  16. if greed feeds the monster, then feed the monster to the greed of another monster (the insurer). Until the operators are subjected to financial pain, because this is the only language they understand, containers could be floating in the oceans with the density of the ice cubes in my cocktail.

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