January 01, 2015

Accident and Design

Why the MOL Comfort casualty has not resulted in a more widespread re-examination of ship design and construction is a mystery to me.

A year and a half after the Mitsui OSK Lines owned containership broke up and sank in the Indian Ocean because of hull girder failure, a hundred companies including the insurers and owners are in court claiming that shipbuilder Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) was responsible for faulty design and for not reporting a relevant crack on another similar ship. Included in this lawsuit, now in progress in Tokyo, are costs paid by Mitsui for retrofitting sister ships of the Comfort post the incident. Claims against MHI exceed $500 million dollars.

The case is expected to take years to reach a conclusion; meanwhile, the fallout is being felt elsewhere too. For one, the International Association of Classification Societies set up an expert group to assess the safety of Post-Panamax containerships, developing two new unified requirements for containerships. And of course, the IMO has made amendments to SOLAS that will make weighing of containers before shipment mandatory by 2016.

Meanwhile, in Denmark, as part of a thesis leading to a PhD, Ingrid Marie Vincent Andersen said in November 2014 that clues had been found that suggested that the catastrophic failure of the Comfort’s hull girders was a possibility more real than was previously thought and had ‘very likely a lot to do with the cargo loading condition of the ship, but the full answer was quite a bit more complicated than that’. Anderson says that the Comfort and her sister vessels were under engineered by naval architects that did not fully account for enormous additional loads that were being placed on the ship.

The Tokyo litigation will, I expect, follow expected lines, with each side blaming somebody else. No doubt MHI is claiming innocence, pointing out that the widespread container weight misdeclaration issue in the trade was a factor in the casualty.  No doubt the owners will dispute this.

The fact will remain, however, that the MOL Comfort, at 8000 odd TEUs, was not a very large ship by any stretch of the imagination. The 'CSCL Globe'- on its maiden voyage last month- is, at 19000 TEU, a giant in comparison. The fact is, also, that recent structural failure has not been restricted to containerships; remember the 2011 Vale Beijing near-catastrophe in Brazil immediately after her first loading?

Which brings me back to my original question. Why aren’t we doing more?

This is a time when bigger and bigger ships are being built. Scientists tell us- and seamen sense- that worse weather is being encountered at sea with every passing year. Despite this, it appears to me that we continue to design and build mammoth ships with incomplete understanding of required strength at sea or of potentially fatal stresses caused by fraudulent weight declarations and the like. The beginning of the mandated container weight regulations are still two years away, and we know how lethargically maritime regulations are implemented even after they come into force.

Perhaps it is time to react before catastrophe, for once. Perhaps it is time to strengthen ship design and construction research and build ships that are more fit for purpose. Perhaps install
real-time monitoring sensor systems – like CHESS, the composite hull embedded sensor system already available- that will lead to a better understanding of the effects of both short term and long-term stresses we subject our ships to in the harsh marine and commercial environments we operate in.

All that has happened, after the Vale Beijing and the MOL Comfort incidents, is that two owners have been pushed to retrofit and strengthen a few of their ships after the event. Shipping can surely do better than that.


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