A bulk carrier pressed into carrying containers was forced to return to a port in China after suffering a collapse of stow under deck, the International Union of Marine Insurers conference has been told. Neither the ship nor the port involved was named during the presentation. But speaker Michael Hird, director of marine claims consultancy WK Webster, subsequently confirmed that he was referring to an incident involving Great Beauty (IMO: 9792876) in late July.

The 38,645 dwt unit is said to have experienced a shift of containers stowed in holds 1 to 4 during high winds and waves arising as a result of Typhoon In-Fa while en route from Taicang, China to Savannah, US. The vessel returned to Taicang anchorage for inspection and remedial works. Containers stowed in hold were reportedly heavily affected, while the shift in the other holds was less serious. Containers stowed on deck were unaffected. According to the WK Webster website, the firm has received instructions from unnamed cargo insurers. Mr Hird said that he was reticent to go into further details in what for Webster is a live case. “It’s only raised an alarm bell for us in that we’re aware of the pressures to get containers moving from the Far East to the US and the limited vessel capacity there is to fulfil that. In this case, something went wrong but we don’t know what that is yet. This case is still under investigation.

However, the incident is likely to reignite the controversy over the carriage of containers on bulk carriers, which have been deemed safe in principle by specialists, albeit with some reservations. It emerged in recent weeks that the current surge in demand for container slots had seen a handful of bulkers deployed as makeshift containerships, carrying containers not just on deck but in their holds. Small and medium size brackets up to panamaxes were deployed in the first instance, and there have been subsequent reports of capesizes used for such purposes. This is certainly permissible, although there may be obstacles to clear with flag, class and P&I club.

But safety experts point out that bulk carriers are just not designed to haul boxes. Potential drawbacks include lack of securing mechanisms, crews without appropriate training, and increased risk of weather damage to deck loads. Mr Hird’s comments were made as part of a wider presentation on the spate of container overboard losses seen in the Pacific in the last northern hemisphere winter. Between November 2020 and February 2021, six large containerships lost more than 3,000 containers. One Apus (IMO: 9806079) lost 1,800, Maersk Essen (IMO: 9456783) 750 and Maersk Eindhoven (IMO: 9456771) 260, with three lesser incidents in addition. That compares to 1,382 boxes lost annually on average in the previous 12 years, with even that total distorted by the one-off MOL Comfort casualty in 2013, with the loss of 4,300 containers.

“While there was a precedent for container losses of this magnitude, to have this many vessels suffer a similar fate on the same voyage seems a little unusual,” Mr Hird pointed out. Now that we are approaching the next northern hemisphere winter, the obvious question is whether there will be a repetition of the casualties. Far East-US box rates remain high and ship capacity is still limited, with port operations hit by the pandemic, trade imbalances resulting in widespread mispositioning. Mr Hird described that situation as “not the greatest,” adding that in recent weeks there has been “examples of bulk carriers being used as containerships on the same route”. “At least one of these ships has already suffered a collapse of stow under deck, forcing it to return to China,” he said.

The cause of last winter’s losses is still being examined, but factors likely to include bad weather, deficient seafaring skills and navigational decisions, ship to shore communication failings, lashing and securing, stowage and voyage planning, and even ship design issues. “We may also need to consider a non-typical cause for these events, that being the pressures exerted on this particular shipping route, ultimately caused by the Covid pandemic that triggered the trade imbalance,” said Mr Hirst. However, some of the ships are known to have been heavily loaded, with stack heights up to 10 or 11, and few if any empties in top tiers. That could have increased risks in winter weather. Around 10% to 15% of cargo on a boxship is typically uninsured, which may amount to 2,000-3,000 boxes on a single ship for the largest vessels. However, most of the losses will have been covered by cargo underwriters, depending on which Institute Clauses applied to any given voyage.