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Confronting the challenge of major containership casualties

TRANSPORT MANAGEMENT: SEPTEMBER 2008

Arnold Witte, President, International Salvage Union

Large containership casualties present a range of challenges for the marine salvor. These problems have escalated due to a rapid increase in ship size. The salvage of any laden container vessel, at an exposed location, can pose some extraordinary difficulties. As for the future, the capabilities of salvors confronting a 14,000 TEU casualty have yet to be tested. Even in relatively favourable circumstances, the operation to salve a “mega” container vessel will stretch even the largest salvor.

Some idea of these problems can be gained from the MSC Napoli casualty in UK waters. During January 2007 this vessel got into trouble during a severe Channel storm. The crew members were rescued when they abandoned ship and the ship was taken in tow. However, subsequently MSC Napoli had to be beached off Branscombe, Devon, to prevent her sinking.

An ISU salvor with a Lloyd’s Form contract removed 3,600 tonnes of heavy fuel oil from the vessel, which was aground one mile offshore. Cranes and barges began the task of removing the deck containers. Some had been lost. They washed up on local beaches, creating something of a furore about “looters”.

One major difficulty was to source suitable equipment for the emergency discharge. Another problem was to find space to land the containers. This caused serious difficulties at the nearby port of Portland. Few ports have the emergency facilities and space required to land, assess and turnround thousands of containers from a casualty. In future cases, perhaps involving a “mega” vessel, this will be another critical factor.

The safe discharge and reception of huge numbers of containers poses immense difficulties. At present, there is no “ideal” equipment for the efficient emergency discharge of a “mega” vessel. Container discharge at an exposed location is always slow, hazardous work. The timescale is often measured in months. In the case of a “mega” vessel, this work could extend to two or three seasons – with adverse consequences for cargo recovery, cargo value and, possibly, safety of the environment.

Fires in container vessels often spread rapidly. Steel boxes are highly efficient heat transmitters. Access problems can make it very difficult to fight such fires. Special equipment has been developed to “reach over” large container stacks and to penetrate individual containers. The growth in vessel size, however, is outstripping the pace of innovation in firefighting capability.

Nevertheless, a number of major container fires have been tackled successfully by salvors. They include a fierce fire on board the Hyundai Fortune, which virtually destroyed the stern section of the vessel and came close to ending this vessel’s career. The open question now is whether the colossal vessels now entering service are just too big to be salved in such extreme circumstances.

Some ancillary problems have already been confronted with a measure of success. One example is the problem of collecting security from thousands of cargo interests. There are insurance solutions to these problems and a number of P&I insurers have put forward new initiatives for this purpose.

The case of the container ship YM Green demonstrates the system’s flexibility in coping with such challenges. This 5,551 TEU vessel had just departed Singapore, part laden with 3,198 containers, when fire broke out in No. 4 hold in August 2006. Two ISU salvors confronted this emergency. They fought the fires successfully. The sound cargo was backloaded and the vessel was able to continue her voyage.

This case involved over 6,000 cargo interests. Nevertheless, salvage security was obtained from all cargo interests, with no significant delay. This demonstrates the core efficiency of the casualty response process. Whether this system has the extreme elasticity to cope with a 14,000 TEU plus casualty, however, is another matter.