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Article: Mega box ship casualty – the shipboard response

11 July 2019

The master and crew of a mega box ship must be suitably prepared for the potential risks faced at sea.

As world trade continues to grow, the world fleets continue to develop and
respond to the transportation demand. The commodity nature of international marine transport particularly requires cost leadership and economies of scale from its shipowners in order to survive and thrive. This strategy is evident in the container shipping sector, where the sizes of new ships continue to increase, replicating similar developments in the oil and dry bulk shipping sectors over the past 40 years.

The mega box ship, carrying in excess of 14,500 individual containers, is now a familiar sight, plying the principal trade routes from the Far East to Europe and back again. Despite their size, mega box ships are still subject to the usual marine perils such as fires and severe storms that can strike a ship at any time on its voyage, posing a great risk to the ship, its crew and cargo. Therefore, it is imperative that the master and crew are prepared for such emergencies.

Key factors in loss prevention

We know well that ‘prevention is always better than cure’, but when disaster strikes, strong leadership, prompt response and effective deployment of resources are essential. The critical factor is to minimise the response time
in making a rapid assessment of the situation, mustering and deploying
responders on board, and preparing/transmitting the initial reports to the ship managers. Today, there is a much closer relationship between ship and
shore, aided by the extraordinary development in communications technology and connectivity.

Training

Each major emergency is unique. However, the International Safety Management (ISM) Code requires shipowners and managers to identify
the major hazards and risks associated with the operation of their ships
and to prepare and train their crews to respond to emergencies if and when they occur. This training and preparation is vitally important and can make the difference between success and spectacular failure.

Prudent owners, operators and their crews place great importance on
having training regimes and response procedures in place. For example,
in the event of a ship grounding, the immediate response of the master and
crew will be to determine if the ship’s hull has been breached. This can be
done by prompt sounding of the tanks and cargo spaces. At the same time,
the master will prepare and send a first communication to their technical
managers and Designated Person Ashore (DPA) which, in a prescribed
format, will list the ship name, date, time, location and speed at which
the ship grounded, any injuries to personnel, the ship’s condition (ie laden or in ballast), current and forecast weather conditions, cargo on board, water ingress (if known), pollution/bunker losses, the various drafts around the ship and the nature of the seabed. This information is critically important to the shore managers as they mobilise their emergency response team and prepare to assist the master and the stricken ship.

Reporting

The ship’s Safety Management System (SMS) and emergency response manual will usually prescribe the reporting format and frequency that the master should use to update their technical managers. The club has seen cases where such reports are sent at hourly intervals during the first three hours of the casualty and at three-hourly intervals thereafter. However, this
schedule will be amended to reflect the prevailing circumstances, eg deteriorating weather conditions, imminent danger of further major damage to the hull due to a falling tide and the emergence of any other risks as the casualty incident unfolds.

The master will submit subsequent reports detailing the cargo, ballast
and bunker weight distributions on board with the stability calculation,
the weather conditions, whether salvors have arrived on scene, whether the ship’s machinery is still functional, whether tow lines have been connected, and what activities or changes have occurred since the previous report. The master and crew will also perform the important task of collecting and retaining all evidence and documentation, and keep detailed records of all events and facts. Evidence of the casualty will be required in due course to assist the investigation, so photographs and witness statements should
be taken at appropriate times.

Communication

Ashore, the managers will be responding in real time to the information received from the master and will organise appropriate salvage assistance. They will also be communicating with the major stakeholders in the voyage,
ie the charterers, insurers, flag state administration as well as the families of the crew and the coastal state authorities, and updating them regarding the situation. Some managers have full in-house technical capability to model and assess the potential damage to the ship, based on the reports from the master. Other operators will, however, seek the immediate technical support of the ship’s classification society to guide their response to the master and salvors.

Industry response

The container shipping industry recognises that mega box ships present a special class of operational and salvage risk, given their physical size and magnitude of cargo on board. Therefore, a working group has been established by the shipping industry to examine the specific challenges
associated with salvaging such a ship. The Standard Club participates in
this group and one of the important outcomes has been the development of an initial assessment form that masters and ship managers can use in an emergency to guide salvors’ initial response efforts. A copy of the form is available on the right. As time is of the essence in reacting to emergencies, the initial assessment form captures the critical information required in a brief, accurate, timely and actionable format. It is hoped that
this format or similar will be widely adopted in the industry so that the master is relieved of the relentless demands for information from disparate parties as the emergency unfolds. The managers ashore can perform and control this necessary task whilst the master and crew can focus their efforts, experience and expertise on solving the crisis.

Conclusion

Clearly, it is only practical to describe one possible emergency scenario in
this article. Fire, collision, machinery breakdown and structural failure all present their own specific challenges. However, in every case, being
prepared, having clear emergency response procedures and maintaining an alert and fully trained crew should help to manage the incident.