MISDECLARED CARGOES ON CONTAINER SHIPS - A CONTINUING PROBLEM
Over 40 years have elapsed since the first overseas container ship Encounter Bay, rdberthed at Sydney on the 3 of April 1969, to inaugurate a full container service from the UK/Europe to Australia/New Zealand. The container shipping industry has made gigantic strides since that pioneering voyage, completely transforming shipping as we then knew it. It wasn‟t just a gradual progression from one system to another; such as sail to steam, it was a revolution that spelt the death knell to conventional shipping, as containerisation rapidly took over.
Today‟s international container shipping fleets are now comprised of a small number of operators, with many of their ships under flags of convenience. The big players now are the CMA CMG Group, Evergreen Line, Maersk Line, and Mediterranean Shipping (MSC), who collectively control 25% of the total world‟s container tonnage. All are very reputable and highly respected companies with container shipping as their core business.
The intermodal method of transportation has proved to be a very efficient and cost effective way of transporting goods over long distances, whether by land or sea world. The continuing problem however of misdeclared container contents and weights, that have dogged the industry since its inception, must surely be of grave concern. This practice is still unfortunately widespread, even in the more developed countries although less of a problem, which has resulted in many serious incidents and shipping casualties over the years.
The investigation into the MSC Napoli accident, revealed what had long been
suspected in the industry that many of the containers which managed to be salvaged intact from the deck, the manifested details did not always match up with the actual contents and weights. Of those containers surveyed, 20% had weight discrepancies.
Over recent times catastrophic fires occurred on the Contship France, Hanjin
Pennsylvania and Hyundai Fortune, to name just a few, caused by undeclared
hazardous cargo, resulting in the constructive total lost of those vessels. As recently as July 2010, the mega 8129 teus container ship Charlotte Maersk caught on fire in
the Malacca Strait. The crew courageously and efficiently battled the fire for over a week, before the blaze could be contained, which could well have claimed the vessel. That old scoundrel, calcium hypochlorite class 5.1 the cause of many hazardous incidents and prohibited to be carried by many shipping company‟s fleets, was
apparently involved with all four vessels.
The container feeder vessel Husky Racer, in October 2009, whilst alongside and
working at Bremerhaven, suffered a deck stow collapse on bay 26, resulting in the loss of 18 containers overboard. It was subsequently found that the top tier containers in 7 of the 9 stows which were shown on the bay plan as empties, were in
fact fulls, with weights ranging from 15 to 30 tons. Fortunately nobody was injured, but just imagine what the consequences might have been, had the vessel been at sea at the time, in bad weather.
When the deck stows aren‟t loaded correctly according to the container weights and per the ship‟s standard instructions, it‟s a recipe for disaster. Not only is the stability then compromised, but also those “rouge” containers of unknown weights, when
under certain circumstances if they are heavy and stowed on the top tiers with light or empty containers, the additional dynamic forces created could also be the trigger for a stow collapse.
The number of incidents of either small feeder vessels capsizing, or on the larger container vessels, deck stows collapsing when in bad weather, all due to misdeclared weights, must be cause for alarm. Unfortunately the problem of misdeclared container information seems to be in the “too hard basket” for many of the shipping companies. Despite the growing concerns from such organisations as the classification societies, government agencies, maritime unions and associations, P& I Clubs, marine surveyors and other parties associated with marine transport, including those highly respected British shipping journalists, Michael Grey and Janet Porter, little action seems to have been taken to address this issue.
The potential dangers that might lurk within any of the hundreds of those steel boxes onboard these large container ships, because of false declarations, is indeed a situation that no shipmaster should have to contend with.
In late 2004, the Australian Senate heard testimony from Customs and other officials there that “approximately 80% of consignments from developing countries are misdeclared” and that “the evasion of duty through undeclared cargo is considered to be another incentive for more container inspections.” Currently only a very small percentage of containers that move through Australia‟s main ports are x-rayed.
It‟s inconceivable and completely unacceptable that there is no mandatory
requirement, for containers to be weighed prior to shipment, both in Australia and
overseas. The weights are all as per shipper‟s advice, which lends itself to abuse by
unscrupulous operators. Also many of the weights supplied, even if accurate for the contents, do not always take into account the tare weight of the container. Correct
weights are absolutely essential for the ship‟s officers to compute accurately the
ship‟s stability and the various hull stresses, to ensure the ship is within the safe parameters for the voyage.
Falsifying weights in shipping is nothing new. During that fabulous era of the clippers and windjammers, because of their tall masts and heavy yards, when empty, those vessels were very vulnerable to capsizing, even in a sudden wind gust when alongside. In order to combat this problem, ballast known as „stiffening ballast‟ was loaded in order to be able to safely sail to the next port for cargo. In some ports the practice of short-weighing the ballast by corrupt port officials had gone on for years, resulting in ships being lost, presumably capsized when in heavy weather. It took a very determined windjammer master, Captain James Learmont, to help stamp out that dreadful practice, when confronted with the situation in Callao Peru. The good Captain refused to sign for the ballast that had been delivered on its estimated weight. After being threatened by the harbourmaster, Captain Learmont countered by arranging a sample weighing, in the presence of a dozen other shipmasters. The test showed much less ballast than had been estimated. Eventually the harbourmaster relented, and Captain Learmont took on his extra ballast as requested. The short-weighing practice ceased from then on and no further ships were lost from Callao.
The modern container ship is a very complex and expensive unit, packed full of the latest hi-tech equipment and computer systems. The sophisticated computer programs cover virtually every eventuality in the loading pattern, throughout the course of the voyage. These ships are built to such exact specifications and are more susceptible to higher bending moments and sheer forces acting on the hull, than when compared to the sturdier built earlier generation vessels. The load has to be more precisely planned than ever before, with much less tolerance, hence the need to have the most accurate information to deal with. Computers are however, only as good as the information that‟s fed into them. Despite all this amazing technology at
the ship‟s disposal, the demands on the ship‟s command are still just as challenging and daunting as ever.
The Australian National Line was a very innovative and well managed company in its day and was also well prepared to meet the challenges of the “container revolution”. At all the ANL terminals it was the procedure then, that all containers received whether by road or rail were required to have a weighbridge certificate. That practice quietly ceased without notice at Port Botany a few years ago, at the behest of the shippers and the trucking companies, long after ANL was no longer involved.
Because of the complexities involved due to the global nature of shipping, in a largely self regulated industry, there seems to be no short term fix to the problems of misdeclared cargoes. This might need involvement from the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), also the individual member countries‟ own government agencies,
to enact the appropriate legislation. Shippers should be made to realise their responsibilities and legal obligations, to provide the correct information on their shipping documents and of the consequences which otherwise could result from noncompliance.
The almost complete reliance on shipper‟s advice, without other procedures in place to verify that information, is indeed the downside of container shipping. Due to the competitive nature of the business and the efforts to reduce costs have no doubt contributed to the industry‟s intransigence. The current practices are far from satisfactory, despite the enormous benefits and economies that containerisation has brought over the years, the industry deserves better.
It would be a very fitting tribute, in honouring the Year of the Seafarer 2010, if
appropriate international regulations and guidelines were to be drawn up and implemented, for the safe carriage of containers on ships. The plight of all those who sail on container ships must not be forgotten - in terms of safety, because of commercial expediency.