Why this box spill ought to spur change

Captain Colin Smith was horrified last week on seeing the collapsed boxes strewn across the Japanese boxship, ONE Apus. For him, the sight of the destruction was illustrative of many woes facing the shipping industry as a whole.

Regarding the calamitous state of the containership ONE Apus pictured on Splash last week, the practice of loading containers far forward, and so high across the deck, is simply a matter of greed. 

The various elements in the industry set up to arbitrate losses proceeding from that greed, insurers and lawyers, can be left to clean up the legal and financial mess themselves. But shipowners don’t own the oceans, the environment and the lives of the crews jeopardised by that greed, nor the lives of crews of smaller vessels who are equally jeopardised by it, especially ocean-going  yachts for whom a collision with a drifting container can be particularity lethal. 

It is high time that a modern Samuel Plimsoll stepped forward and grasped the  nettle of dangerously overloaded ships. Plimsoll was a seamen’s champion from the Victorian era who campaigned against what were known as ‘coffin ships’, unseaworthy and overloaded vessels, often heavily insured, in which unscrupulous owners risked the lives of their crews.

The media should widely disseminate news of these box spill catastrophes and their causes, instead of colluding with the industry by covering them up or under-reporting the full story. An aroused public might well compel developed world governments to intervene again between the shipowner’s drive for profits and the rights of beleaguered masters and seamen to survive the voyage, bringing some sanity to a market that often seems entirely out of control.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) should mandate limits on the number of containers carried above deck, their positioning and protective structures, and seasonal restrictions similar to the Timber and WNA Load Lines. The need for this initiative is rendered more urgent by the increase in average wave heights now encountered in the world’s oceans as a result of climate change. To the practiced eye the damage depicted on the 14,000 teu ONE Apus suggests a prolonged period of violent rolling. How severe were the sea and swell conditions that the master could not heave to, taking the weather on either bow? What schedule pressures was he subjected to that would force him to maintain an imprudent course in such violent seas?

It is high time that a modern Samuel Plimsoll stepped forward and grasped the nettle of dangerously overloaded ships

Some critics who reveal their fealty to the commercial aspect of the industry echo its totalitarian mentality by wanting to sanction a seafarer who takes a photograph of this disaster. Since all the key players inside the industry are entitled to photographs, the only entity he is concerned to keep ignorant is the general public, via the world’s media. This is probably the reason why the general public has so far been kept ignorant of such environmental threats.

Since the birth of flags of convenience, or open registers, the individual seafarer finds himself a helpless pawn in a Dutch auction of the factors of production in global shipping, in which all the benefits accrue to the shipowner and none to the seafarer, who is rendered powerless. Once he escapes the constraints of a modern democratically governed developed world register, the shipowner finds himself surrounded by an exotic cornucopia of flags, seafarers, management services, classification societies, and insurers to choose from, all competing with each other in a downward bidding market called a Dutch auction. This auction acts most cruelly upon the seafarer, who finds himself in a regulatory black hole, with only transient rights in the Port State Control regimes through which his ship passes, and none in his vessel’s flag state, whose only interest is tonnage money. 

A developed world seafarer enjoying trade union and civil rights protection under a developed world flag could never be intimidated in the same way their developing world brothers on flag of convenience ships are intimidated. The abuses appear to be getting worse. Blacklisting is the norm for any seafarer courageous enough to raise his hand and demand justice and relief. Flagging out and employing cheap crews is merely another manifestation of the greed that infects international seaborne trade.

This inhuman state of affairs will continue until a global, pan-government body, perhaps emerging through the IMO, replaces the  current antiquated, global patchwork ship registry system, with an all-inclusive, uniform and comprehensive ‘world’ register in which every shipowner will be compelled to treat his employees with dignity and humanity.

At this juncture it would be fitting to revisit the wisdom of one of America’s greatest judges, William  Douglas of the US Supreme Court, who stated in 1949 that “if men are to go down to the sea in ships and face the perils of the ocean, those who employ them must be solicitous of their welfare”.


  1. Your correspondent must believe that everyone is aware of the multitude of items which MUST be observed before leaving port, fully loaded or otherwise.

    Many decades ago, I sailed and worked as an Engineer Officer in what was then probably the largest Merchant Navy in Europe. In the area I grew up in, one of the boyhood dreams which were easily achieved was to either go to sea, or help build the ships which provided the lifeblood of the Trade upon which our survival depended. We are an Island race, the sea is, or rather was; in our very DNA.

    But these days, if you ask an ordinary youngster why Samuel Plimsoll was famous, they would ask if he featured in some YouTube video, instead of his being singly responsible for one of the first measures for Safety at Sea, accepted and respected across the oceans of this world.

    1. The bio of Samuel Plimsoll should be required reading in the basic safety course.

      It is remarkable that it took him an entire lifetime (suffering opposition and abuse) before he could succeed in enacting the loadline regulations.

    2. Who is everyone that they should be aware of the procedures to be followed when preparing a ship for sea? Every Master should certainly know. He has to go through it every time he leaves port. The deck officers ought to know, and probably do. The Engineers have their own procedures, and will not acknowledge “stand by” on the telegraph unless they are ready. The sea in our DNA is just romantic hogwash.

    3. Please allow me to further comment on the he practices of loading containers far forward, and so high across the deck, is simply a matter of greed, in the first paragraph above.

      Container ships typically make a lot of port calls, and port dues are based on its gross tonnage. We know that gross tonnage is calculated on the spaces below the uppermost continuous deck. All cargo stack above the uppermost continuous deck is exempt from tonnage calculations. The first type of ships to benefit from this system were the timber laden ships, which carried timber on deck to a sizeable height. The regulators then gave some leeway, as timber has an element of floatation, as so might roughly assist a vessel’s buoyancy.

      Now on to container ships which boldly imitated the pattern of stowing containers deck. The early “Bay Boats” of early 1970s had a tall hull structure but did not venture to stacking more than three tiers on deck because of the limitations of cargo lashing equipment strength.

      Over the years, container ships got bigger, shipowners tried to experiment with higher stacks. As we very well know, all these cargo is a bonus over the gross tonnage calculations, and earned additional freight. Shippers of containers had the option of asking underdeck space, for which they had to pay a little extra for the protection from the elements.

      Over the years, structure of the container became more robust and strength of container corner castings increased, when the maximum was six per container stack could now take ten per container stack.

      Let’s revisit from the beginning. The Greed factor; Larger sized container ships carrying more freight for its equivalent gross tonnage; practice of stacking higher tiers on decks; stronger container construction as weighed against the unchanged pattern of securing the containers of the 1970s which can usually tie together just three tiers above the lashing bridge arrangement on these ultra large container ships.

      And navigating these huge ships in a ferocious storm while taking a false comfort that bigger ships can easier ride the waves?

      Is’nt that a disaster waiting to happen?

      1. Yessir, excellent comment. The “Mega-boxship” concept is ENTIRELY about maximizing the profit per unit. Ironically, this specific class of ship isn’t even the biggest type today! 21-22,000 TEU carrying ships are the upper end of this class and many are already out there and more are being (will be) built.

  2. The irony of it all is that it was the so called “developed world” that invented the “flags of convenience”. Nearly ALL shipowners that you flagellate in this article even now populate the developed world. They are not the only ones exploiting the hapless seafarer, and incidentally all don’t. Look at the immigration and customs authorities in every country who, first after 9/11 began treating seafarers like potential terrorists with not an iota of evidence or precedence of any seafarer ever having participated in such acts, and lately the same authorities have also pinned the title of “plague carriers” to the same seafarers due to the pandemic. I understand your empathy for the seafarer’s plight but your comments seem to allude that is is the developed world’s seafarers who are competent and righteous enough to stand up against the greed of unethical shipowners. If that was the case, then please explain the world’s biggest maritime disasters from the Titanic to the Torrey Canyon, the Exxon Valdez and the Herald of Free Enterprise caused by developed world flags and crews. Lets not get carried away by a tragedy and hypothesize without knowing the facts. This is just a plain case of a ship having strayed where it shouldn’t have. It can happen… like it did to the Titanic. Humans make mistakes. There is no need to ascribe nefarious motives like greed to an accident. We can be thankful that no lives were lost. I was a sailor for 30 years and have been associated with the marine industry for 44. Every day without an accident at sea was a day to be grateful for.

  3. No doubt something needs to be done, but is it right to bring in flags of convenience, overloading and the third world in this case? It seems to be a ship from a fairly well-respected owner, flying a fairly well-respected flag and no doubt conforming to all the regulations. There seems to be no evidence it was overloaded. It would be interesting to know if the owners invested in weather routing and, if so, what advice the master was given. But the major lesson should be we need a thorough investigation to discover what is going wrong with these ships, then for the classification societies and other regulatory bodies to do something about it. That’s assuming, of course, that it was not a freak accident. Most sources indicate average container losses at 1400 per year over the past ten years, so this case is exceptional. The question is, why? Until we know that, our outrage is rather impotent.

    1. Nice to see a comment from Alan, who talks sense from a very solid background.

      I note that the indentical twin sister ship ONE Aquila had similar issues on the same passage in October.

      I think that may point us in a useful direction.

      Incidentally the forward deck stacks were unaffected.

      1. Of course they need to be, since they are at the root of this phenomenon on container ships. I never mentioned the third-world. ‘Overloading” in this sense obviously refers to it’s actual condition, not it’s conformity to the Load Line Rules.
        You are obviously a PR flack for the shipping industry. Your knowledge of the shipping industry is abysmal. We don’t know it was a fairly respected owner and flag. You seem to go out of your way to deflect criticism by asserting basically that everything was fine, when it palpably was not. Classification societies are not regulatory agencies. They are privately owned and compete like everyone else in the Dutch auction. F.o.c.’s use them to carry out inspections because they have few or no inspector of their own. Remember the tonnage money? But their authority comes from the Government of Liberia, “God help us!” How did the “Prestige” shed it’s hull plating after being classified and inspected by ABS? Any experienced Master will have gotten a signature from a non-dedicated surveyor in a remote port for a bottle of whiskey and a carton of cigarettes.I have! Outrage should be expressed now and maintained. The industry will try to bury it in it’s own dedicated press. The public will forget, until another ship that is visibly and actually overloaded is lost or gets into similar difficulties. Then the circus will start up again.

    2. Agree. The notion that a ship that has a full profile of boxes on her main decks is then “over-loaded” is a faulty assumption. On a passage east bound out of Asia to the US west coast, it’s safe to presume she has a full load of containers that have cargo within them. Westbound that same ship is likely to be moving a number of empty boxes and her full profile on deck would then be misleading to those that think she is carrying another full load of cargo. The term “over-loaded” is something used by many (ashore) that genuinely have little understanding of maritime transportation, especially in the media.

      1. Ed, what l mean is that it “over-loaded” as regards the height of the stack of containers on deck, not according to her Load Line. I remember SOLAS moved the Load line up about a foot in 1966. As a result my ship was able to load grain a foot deeper. Despite taping the hatches to keep out sea water we had to open the hatches and shovel overboard the top foot of grain, which had become dangerously saturated. This to conceal from the receivers that the hatches had leaked and contaminated the cargo. That was bad enough. I’m not sure whether it matters whether they’re loaded or not. Obviously empty they would offer no resistance to the wind and sea, but full they may have a little help from gravity, but when plucked off would do much more damage. 6 of one, half-a-dozen of the other. What is critical is the height of the stack, plus of course the quality of lashing, but surely the Chief Officer did his inspection of the stow before sailing.

  4. Would echo the comments from Alan Loynd. “Is it right to bring in flags of convenience, overloading and the third world”.
    The vessel is flagged in Japan, with a reputable class society and a well respected owner.
    Investigation before finger pointing please.

  5. Thank you Capt. Smith for this honest account of root issues plaguing the industry. The issue of crew who are afraid if their own shadow because of the scourge of bkacklisting is a real safety issue. I have met so many Captains and crew who take chances because they fear the wrath of owners and their agents. Hell crewmembers do not want their name mentioned when the have been 18 months onboard ships in violation of the MLC. Lets face it the core of shipping industry is rotten.

  6. Billions and billions of dollars will be now charged at coastal states for cleaning tasks. Meanwhile shippers just worried about the cost of transportation (which goes down as number of containers on deck increases), will keep ordering Captains to load containers on deck as high as possible. Shippers and charterers will hire only those ships with highest deck cargoes, so shipowners order higher and higher deck-cargo capacity to shipyards . Underwriters and shippers ignore any safety consideration, because it would increase cost of transportation and it would reduce their ability to produce revenues. So, yes this is a vicious circle feeded by greed.

  7. We’ll all be looking forward to the investigation conclusions, though we also know it’ll likely be “toned down” depending on who actually will conduct it and how/when it’ll be released. I don’t expect to see this report until late next year, released on a Friday afternoon at 4:00 PM before a long three day weekend in an effort to bury the realities of what really happened here. The causation of such an accident I’m certain even now, are NOT any one thing, but likely several in the infamous “error chain” of events that lead up to a cataclysmic loss of boxes and their cargoes.

    I’m personally happy to hear none of the crew were injured and the ship itself is safe and headed back to port under her own power. That’s most important here.

    But I truly wish the industry and regulators would consider a review of this new generation of floating behemoths that have mixed reviews of their … success … if you wish to call it that. They clog ports, require special berths for crane reach and water depth, overwhelm terminals with cargo volume, take longer to load/discharge and service speed and schedule integrity (from customer’s point of view) is questionable. And when they have an accident as we see here, it is always on a grand scale! Big ships create bigger problems in comparison to the rest of the fleet out there.

    But I’m not holding my breath for any positive change. As Capt. Smith stated, this is just one more example of the
    “… manifestation of the greed that infects international seaborne trade …”

    Our industry has been FORCED to adhere to an acceptable minimum standard of safety regulations promulgated by the International Regulatory Authorities for the simple fact that, without them, most owners couldn’t care less. The losses are an acceptable level of their overall fleet operation. These ships were created, designed, engineered, and built at the request of owners who wanted to maximize profits while lowering costs. Otherwise, no sensible seafarer would come up with such a ship concept that begs for a variety of problems while in actual operation at sea/in port.

  8. Firstly, we need to know how such a large number of containers were lost. We can argue for change only after we know the root cause. There are conflicting reports on the state of the weather. If this was caused by extreme weather, then obviously the Master did not perform his duty of care towards the ship, the cargo and the crew. With so many weather routing services in operation, how hard is it to find out the weather conditions in the area at the time?

    The real problem lies elsewhere. As soon as a marine accident occurs, all stakeholders join up in an unholy alliance to suppress information. In the case of M.V. Wakashio, nerarly six months after the event, we are no closer to knowing why the vessel went off course. We don’t even know who was the OOW at the time of the grounding. The world may have to wait for 2 years before the official investigation report by the Flag State is released. In the meantime, armchair experts have exhausted all imaginary scenarios except that the ECDIS suffered a cyber attack by Martian Aliens.

  9. It is difficult to accept that in this day and age, a ship can simply stray into an area of extreme weather.

    1. Yes.
      Interesting description in numerous media reports that this vessel (and her sister-ship before her last October) seemingly found themselves in bad weather as if the shipmaster had no idea as the high winds and rough seas appeared out of nowhere. Also, the description of the “extreme weather”. Initial reports were the wind/seas were Force 4. Later another report indicated 16 meter swells. So THAT factor is to be investigated further. The presumption that these increasingly larger ships are impervious to bad weather is another common mistake. If people simply think the size of the vessel will save her from the ravages of the sea, you’ve likely never been to sea. Sooner or later you run through a storm and no matter how big your ship is, you feel pretty tiny as the weather tosses your ship around like a cork.

  10. Everyone knows that the underlying problem is the IMO and the undue influence exerted on it by shipowner interest lobbyists, inclusive of the ICS and even IACS. Another Samuel Plimsoll needed? He was faced with a fight against UK shipowners, many of whom were MPs in the British Parliament. It took him 40 years of fighting and support from Queen Victoria to get UK load line legislation into force to stop the annual drowning of thousands of seafarers. So would Plimsoll succeed today against the IMO and the underlying global shipowner interests that drive it? Not likely unless he fancied being villified as a lefty idiot on social media. As such, the only light on the horizon I can see is the EU and EMSA who have the power, the money and the political will to call out the IMO on a number of fronts by declaring, ‘if you don’t sort these problems out, then the EU will’. This is what seafarers need more of. Not IMO apologetic hand wringing and lobbyist induced prevarication.

  11. Pls forgive me my sarcasm but one can not shake the impression , that the article and some of the comments remind me of an old prank in utube about the ” bow that fall off ” and CEO magnificent presentation of glib talk skills. Would it not be reasonable to wait for the opinion of experts, who will I am sure investigate the issue using their best knowledge and experience , which as it seems some do not have but still want so sound like having??? What pops in the www space , stays there forever and some may not be comfortable and loose credibility/face, once investigation results are revealed for public scrutiny. Just saying .

    1. Look again at the latest pictures. Containers forward of the bridge gone overboard. I see no solid background from friend Alan. Only the obvious attempt to smooth it over and minimize the incident. Frankly the only people who have anything important to say are seafarers , especially Masters. They’ve been through it and know what it’s like. Many Masters have been in this Masters predicament. Office people have not. The “them and us” conflict is at it’s greatest between seafarers and head office. The “wait for the investigation report to be published” school know that in a year or more’s time, when the report comes out, it will mostly be forgotten. I was a Marine Accident Investigator, so l know how it works.
      Mariners like Captain Gordon can empathize with that Master, and understand what he’s being told. This is due to his depth of experience, accumulated knowledge and understanding of ships and the sea..Office types have nothing to add here.

  12. Do you honestly think that anything else will deflect and detract from experienced mariners’ concluding that the ship was nearly overwhelmed by mountainous seas, inducing rolling described by Captain Gordon? Just look at it! I defy the Masters and seamen here to suggest any other cause. Maybe they got tired and couldn’t stay upright any more. Maybe the “hand of god” came down and pushed them over the side. The damage you see is the result of powerful forces which almost took her down, violent forces that only the sea can inflict upon such a large ship.
    What else is there to know? As an Investigator l often turned up at a damaged ship, and just by looking at it, by imagining the forces that created the damage, l get a pretty good idea of what happened. Details will flesh out the investigative report, but to experienced seamen the cause is obvious. We should be grateful on another front that the ship made it to port. Had she been lost we would never have seen how a “physically” overloaded ship will fare in such conditions. She would be written off as lost at sea, with no information at all as to why she went down. As for “westher-routing” it is a con. It constrains the Master from doing what “he” deems necessary to find good weather and proceed with the voyage. My own experience is that “weather-routing” kept me in a position that l knew was folly to be in, unnecessarily subjecting the ship to heavy weather, when l could see that steaming 8 hours south it would have got me out of it completely.
    ‘The Master is now in a dilemma. Obey his own experience and judgement or obey weather-routing from an office thousands of miles away. Either way, like gps, it is deskilling the role of a Master. How many even bring their own sextant with them? Or know how to use it, taking stars and the sun? Today they just read off the gps numbers. GPS put the “Wakashio” aground with great accuracy. I hear of vast cruise ships that nowadays don’t even carry paper charts. Deskilling of course allows the shipowner to hire cheaper crews, wherefrom is immaterial. The greed factory continues.

  13. Nothing will happen, container ships will continue to load this way till a few more containers are lost and change will or May be only implemented if ‘many’ lives are lost multiple times . No one cares if a few containers are lost (they are insured)
    This incident will be soon forgotten and one will see even larger ships and taller stacks in the future.
    This industry has never been proactive and will never be !!
    Being a seafarer is a thankless profession !!

  14. I have long believed that insurance is the enemy of safety. If a ship is lost, the cargo and ship are insured, but not the poor seafarer. If a ship-owner can lay off his risk, he will take more chances. If he had not been able to insure his interest, his liability for loss or damage due to his greed would be absolute. Same with the cargo owners who choose an unseaworthy ship because the freight rate is low. It can be argued that the ability to lay off maritime risk is a matter of public policy, that without it international trade could not occur. I agree, but we should record here that the insurance market provides a means both of neglecting the condition of his ship, and also of being indemnified for its loss and damage. The “names” who comprise Lloyd’s syndicates, actors, pop stars , aristocrats and public figures among them, make a killing in the insurance market. Although there have been expensive tragedies which names have had to dig deep into their own pockets to cover, in general it is extremely lucrative and, of course secretive. In the early days of international trade the ship-owner travelled with his cargo, so he had a selfish interest in the integrity of his ship. Once he stepped ashore he personally detached himself from the risk. But he could insure against its loss or damage. Without insurance international trade could not happen, the liability would be absolute. My thesis is that insurance has gone way too far in relieving the pressure on shipowners to maintain their ships. Instead of covering the entire risk, insurers should be limited in the proportion of risk it takes on. This would at least guarantee that the ship-owner carries some of the burden of risk. Insurance is another element in the Dutch auction of shipping factors of production. The pressure on rates from the ship-owner is always down, the underwriter up. If the ship is an unseaworthy wreck, the owner will find insurance ‘somewhere’ in the market. The phenomenon of the f.o.c. was a blatant attempt to get away from the expensive regulatory oversight that established registers entailed, and which gave insurers some idea of the condition of the ship. Then these established registers joined the Dutch auction, offering second registers, or lost their fleet to f.o.c.s. If a ship’s mortgage is also insured, there emerges the capacity to profit from disaster, and then we are back to over-insured coffin ships. As a government surveyor l have seen many of these ships. Single owners, no real understanding of the industry, buy a ship and stuff it full of cargo, l, in Canada, could recommend the ship be detained. But what about the rest of the world? Will they detain?

  15. There does seem to be a lack of lashing bars in the photos, and I’ve always thought it exceptionally difficult to ensure that 14,000 TEU have been appropriately lashed in accordance with the approved CSM with a port stay usually measured in hours….

    Several containers appear to have collapsed on the bottom, with the stack remaining in place due to the twistlocks. This would imply, on top of the parametric rolling, potentially stack weights not conforming to the approved CSM.

  16. The area of N.Pacific during winter is notorious for its bad weather among seafearers. It is still not known what was the reason for this terrible outcome for One Apus but it could probably be the parametric rolling. This has already happened with an APL vessel. There is no ship that can win against the Nature.

  17. I think Josh and Alex have struck the nail on the head and parametric rolling will be found as the likely culprit for this loss.

    During winter in the North Pacific it is not unusual for an eastbound ship to be overtaken by a storm. That happened to me several times in the late 90s when returning to Alaska from the Far East on crude tankers. Not much you can do to avoid a storm that is overtaking you.

    You might think you’re safe with a following sea but parametric rolling can occur with a swell that comes from directly astern of you as well as one on the nose. As is typical with eastbound container ships, the ONE Apus was full, but not down, and the wide flair of the hull is clearly visible on the transom of the ship. Would not surprise me at all if the vessel wasn’t overtaken by a storm and suffered violent parametric rolling which caused structural failure in both the lashing arrangements and the containers themselves.

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