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In an unprecedented period of container stack collapses between November 2020 and February the following year, some 5,762 boxes were lost from five major incidents, mainly in the Pacific. 

The tragic events that winter featured comparatively new vessels, including ONE Apus and Maersk Essen. And, using the average value per container of $40,000 per box, that could be more than $230m in cargo losses – without calculating the environmental damage caused by these stack collapses. The average annual container losses from ships amounted to between 1,000 and1,500 containers lost in the decade from 2010 to 2019, with the notable exception of 2013, which saw the loss of more than 4,000 boxes with the sinking of MOL Comfort. 

Ship designers have moved to mitigate the level of losses through container stack collapses, with Hyundai Heavy Industries announcing on 1 November its development of extended cell guides that will do away with lashing, saving time and money and making container stacks more stable. Approved in principle by both US class society ABS and the Liberian flag, the system does away with hatch covers and uses a “portable bench” that effectively transfers the container load to the hull, holding the stack without lashings. HHI’s development may well become the norm, but current vessels still need lashing bridges and lashing work by both crew and dockers, and the risk of container losses from the existing fleet remains.  

As a result, lines enlisted the help of maritime experts at Dutch institute Marin to research the causes of stack collapses, in a three-year program named Top Tier, to solve the mystery of the sudden increase in losses. Jos Koning, senior project manager at the Top Tier research project, told The Loadstar that while high-profile incidents, such as the ONE Apus, had declined, the number of losses through less-publicized incidents remained a concern. As a result, Top Tier’s investigation, as outlined by Mr. Koning, has six areas of interest, with the strength of container lashing equipment top of the list, a working group investigating the safe working loads and strengths of lashing equipment, with the expected deterioration of this equipment during the normal working conditions. 

A second area of concern is that, with loading plans devised prior to a vessel’s arrival at port, the physical loading should match the load plan. Very often this is not the case, because a container may not match the declared weight, or some containers may have shifted from one location to another for other operational reasons, which could affect the weight distribution and balance of the stacks. “VGM [verified gross mass] rules have improved the weight declaration problems for load planners, but there can be other reasons why containers end up in an unplanned position,” said Mr. Koning. A third Top Tier investigation is into are the effects of a ship’s motion when sailing. In the first instance, there is what Mr. Koning describes as the “classical motions”, those the crew and designers can predict and are worst-case design motions. 

These should not cause box losses because the vessel and its lashing equipment will be designed to meet these types of movements. Extreme motions” as described by Top Tier are supposed to be avoided by a crew, through good vessel handling. These include parametric rolling in following seas, identified by the Top Tier researchers as a particular threat to containership operations. 

These conditions were considered so serious by Top Tier that the researchers issued a warning to vessel operators describing how to spot these conditions and how to respond. A fifth element to the research takes in human factors in the operation of the ship, with the focus on avoiding operational actions that will risk the loss of cargo. However, Mr. Koning stresses that none of these issues can be resolved without a regulatory framework that will see compliance made a requirement.