June 27, 2013

Cold comfort

This wasn’t some old small junk built by some dodgy shipyard and run by some third rate outfit. The MOL Comfort was a five year old, 90,000 tonne boxship built by one of the best known Japanese shipyards and operated by one of the best known Japanese companies. Her breaking up into two big pieces at sea, less than a thousand miles from Mumbai, should be a big mystery. Or perhaps not.

I am disregarding the rumours going around that the Comfort was carrying arms in 4000 odd containers meant for Syrian rebels; even if true, this is not material to her breakup. I am also disregarding, for lack of any evidence whatsoever, one or two oddballs who are saying that the Russians torpedoed the ship.

In the absence of the other usual suspects- weather, collision or grounding, I am willing to wager that unknown stresses caused by under declared container weights over the Comfort’s short working life – which is a routine occurrence in the trade that everybody knows about and winks at- has much to do with her snapping into two. 

Decades after the realisation that under declared container weights can have disastrous consequences on the stability or integrity of ships- causing them either to fracture or capsize or both- the IMO has been finally ‘seized of the matter’ (as the bureaucrats say in India). There may well be, in another few years, amendments in the pipeline to SOLAS that call of verification of container weights. Not that that by itself will solve the problem; IMO regulations rarely do.

Those of us who have sailed on container ships- feeders or larger- know the life threatening consequences of false container weights well. I hope the trumped up Operations Manager in a very well-known shipmanagement company is reading the Comfort story and remembering his veiled threats to me when I shut out two dozen containers in a port because we were fully loaded long before we thought we would be, thanks to the unknown under declared manifested weights of the boxes. I hope that alleged ‘logistics specialist’ in another top rung shipmanagement setup is reading the story too- he was spouting half-baked stability theories to push me to load beyond my margin for safety, until I politely reminded him that the number of years of my experience at sea coincided approximately with the number of his years of experience on mother earth.

(Pardon me for not naming people, companies or ports involved. Just following the old shipping tradition of not embarrassing the guilty.) 

Experienced Master’s and Chief Officers on container vessels get used to keeping a hawk’s eye on the GM, the stability curve and the shearing forces of their ship. All are critical. A low-ish calculated GM can capsize you if enough containers that happen to be loaded high have their weights under declared. (So can, on feeder vessels with low displacement, picking up two 40 tonne containers on two ship’s cranes simultaneously at the discharge port.) Too many container ships have simply rolled over in port, either alongside or when they are pulled off by tugs after loading; I had the misfortune- and an invaluable learning experience- of seeing this happen to another ship in port. 

However, although one can try to keep the calculated shearing forces and bending moments low (with a margin of safety for misdeclaration) during each stage of each cargo operation, this is often far tougher to do in practice, and is often given lower priority. Because usually nothing dramatic happens.

Maybe, with the MOL Comfort, it did. The only way we will know is if each of the containers aboard is salvaged and weighed. And even that will not tell us much about the cumulative effects of loading and discharging containers- many undoubtedly with weights substantially under declared- over the preceding five years. Maybe forensic or other tests on the steel can tell us more.

No doubt the IMO will accelerate the formation of its committees and sub-committees after the Comfort. Closer to the action, the CYA operation will undoubtedly accelerate too, with classification societies, owners, operators, shippers and insurers obfuscating facts to ‘protect their interests.’ 

Maybe some of the better operators will try to push shippers and their organisations to do something immediate to address the issue, although I don’t know how far they will succeed in the present market conditions. Scores of emails must be already flying to and fro between all the container ships on earth and their managers who sometimes appear as if they are on another planet.

I hope that prudent Masters and Chief Officers tighten up even more after the Comfort, re-examining their loadicators and calculations for probable errors and reassessing their earlier comfort levels of minimum GM levels, maximum stresses and such.  And, tongue in cheek, maybe the industry will realise that the under declaration of container weights can cost more than (yawn) crew’s lives.  It can also cost (gasp) big money.

Yeah, regardless of the real reason why the MOL Comfort broke up- underdeclared box weights or not- maybe some good will come out of all this.


1 comment:

B.S. Bhargava said...

Having read about this problem, what you're saying makes total sense. What the investigation will finally reveal could be masked by lot of commercial interests.

"Declaration of Weights" will soon follow, with added responsibility for ship staff to somehow verify that the declaration is true. Just like the meaningless Decln of Security !!