This year’s typhoon season in East Asian waters seems to be a particularly bad one, with hugely expensive damage caused by a series of storms to the China coast, Japan, Taiwan and The Philippines. To mariners, who may have been unfortunate enough to be too close to these storms for comfort, they are reminders of the sheer power of nature, no matter how big and powerful their ships might be.
Lying at anchor off Hong Kong last month, awaiting repairs, having been caught off the Japanese coast by Typhoon Guchol was a very large container ship with two complete stacks of containers in her deck load collapsed. One amidships leant out over the port side, with its lower tiers crushed, while the aftermost stack on the poop had collapsed in a spectacular fashion to both port and starboard, with six high towers of forty footers poised over the sea on both quarters of the ship. It seemed to be something of a tribute to the strength of the twistlocks that the whole stow had not vanished over the side.
It was also a reminder of a number of problems that continue to afflict the liner trades, as each heavy weather season in whatever hemisphere sees a number of incidents of collapsed stows. The reasons are many. Perhaps the contents of the containers were insufficiently lashed inside them. Perhaps they were heavier than had been declared and the weight on the lower tiers was just too great for the boxes on the bottom. It is a matter that sees active lobbying by BIMCO on this issue, calling for greater precision in declarations of both weight and contents, with mandatory weighing.
Perhaps lashings aboard the ship parted, with the vessel rolling heavily in the extreme weather. A great deal is asked of container lashings, which really have to be tight if they are to be safe and efficient as a vessel moves in a seaway. Much is asked of lashing gangs, who are expected to move fast in a trade which prides itself on its precise scheduling and of the equipment itself, which is often called upon to withstand extreme stresses.
Then there is the undoubted fact that containerships, which carry so much of their cargo on deck, just tend to roll heavily. Terrifying angles have been recorded on these ships, with large vessels in particular apparently subject to asymmetric rolling , when a long vessel straddles two waves and effectively falls into a trough, momentarily losing her stability.
IMO’s sub-committee on Ship Design and Equipment noted at its last meeting a report by the Secretariat on a very serious accident aboard the containership Chicago Express, in which the bridge lookout was killed and the Master seriously injured and four other crew members were hurt, when the vessel violently rolled and threw them the full width of the bridge. In the report of this incident, which had actually happened in 2008, a number of issues were raised. The lack of handholds in the bridge was one area that came to light, with an obvious suggestion to ensure that these are adequate in other ships. While the weather was exceptionally severe, and the vessel which (unlike the other ship) was light, was slowed right down, the Master and his bridge team could not determine the best course to steer in the dark and were unprepared for a series of huge waves approaching from the side. It was also suggested that bilge keels and other roll-damping systems might be considered to reduce the risk of violent rolling. In this sad case, the ship was nearly empty, although six containers were flung over the side from the deck stow.
More attention, it was recommended, should be paid to the consequences of swell-related stability effects, noting that large ships often sail with very little cargo, which can result in both crew and cargo being exposed to very dangerous forces and accelerations. Some more thought in both the design and operation of these ships would appear to be called for.