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Article: Post-casualty management of the cargo

News & Insights 10 July 2019

This article provides practical advice on how to handle the complex logistical task of managing distressed and undamaged containers following a mega box ship incident.


Gianluca Rolff
Master Mariner, TMC Marine
T +44 1634 366 300

This article provides practical advice on how to handle the complex logistical task of managing distressed and undamaged containers following a mega box ship incident.

The post-casualty management of several hundred or thousand distressed containers and cargoes, together with undamaged units, presents an owner with a very complex logistical task which is likely to be expensive and timely to resolve.

For the shipping line to achieve a successful outcome, much depends on the condition of the ship, the location, the infrastructure and facilities of the
port of refuge, and the local authorities’ willingness and capability to deal with a troubled large ship.

If General Average (GA) has been declared, the ship’s owner, through average adjusters, will most likely appoint a GA surveyor who will act
in the general interest to assess the type and level of damage.

How can cargo become distressed?

A serious fire will not only lead to burnt cargoes or heat and smoke damage, but also to contamination by firefighting water possibly containing chemicals and debris originating from the various wetted products within the wet/flooded holds. A grounding incident and a collision below the waterline could breach the ship’s hull, with consequent flooding or a breach of the bunker tanks. Therefore, a serious casualty would most likely lead to a large number of containers/cargoes being distressed.

The distressed cargo can become dangerous to humans and the environment, and therefore will be a concern to the relevant authorities. As
such, distressed cargo often requires management input to ensure its safety
and to protect its residual value.

Post-casualty management of sound containers/cargoes

In today’s busy world, there are few container terminals that do not suffer from a degree of congestion in their normal daily operation. The lack of wharf and stacking
space availability is one of the main challenges a shipping line will face when requesting a port to accept not only several hundred distressed containers but also thousands of sound containers, at short notice, from a mega box ship casualty.

Container terminals also have time constraints. It is not unusual for some
South East Asian ports to require thousands of undamaged containers to be moved out within a week, which is a very short time frame. The logistics involved in resolving these issues are costly, and the shipping line may have to divert other container ships to the port of refuge or even charter ships purposely, in order to lift the sound containers at short notice. Furthermore, GA and/or salvage securities may have to be provided by the cargo interests if GA is declared by the owners.

If long delays occur at the port of refuge, the cargo interests may abandon their sound consignments to the shipping line, for instance when goods have a fast approaching expiry date or if the delay would affect the market conditions at the destination. In these cases, a shipping line may task surveyors to establish whether the consignments retain residual value in
alternative markets, which requires exploration of salvage sale avenues.

Cargo documentation required

In order to have full knowledge of the types of cargo on board the
ship, for the purpose of its post-casualty management, a number of cargo documents must be made available. From experience, fundamental documentation such as cargo manifests may prove to be quite hard to obtain, especially at the initial stages of the incident. Owners or head charterers may not have a general manifest readily available or may be reluctant to provide it.

Additionally, when several slot charterers are involved, cargo information is often provided in different formats and may well be incomplete. It usually takes several days to create a database on a workable document that allows for a full understanding of the cargoes under review and provides the basis
of how to manage the damaged goods on board and ashore.

Once the cargo manifests are obtained, these can be ‘married’ to the BAPLIE file. A BAPLIE file is an electronic information file holding information about every slot occupied on board the containership. It is typically exchanged between the container terminal operator, the ship operator, the shipping line and the ship’s master.

The BAPLIE does not indicate the container’s cargo, which is usually found in the manifest. The two documents are therefore complementary when  planning the management of the distressed cargo.

Shipboard operations

Practical risks
Once the ship is made safe for distressed cargo operations at the port of refuge or perhaps at anchorage, the shipping line will be faced with several practical difficulties. For example, can the containers be handled or lifted safely? There may be distorted container guides in the cellular hold. There could be physical or mechanical damage to the units. Flooded and submerged containers may be stuffed with water-absorbing commodities, which would render the units bulging and overweight to the extent that their longitudinal and transversal strength is compromised. They could break up upon lifting, whilst floors might give away and cargo might fall into the ship’s holds.

Environmental risks
Is the water in the flooded hold hazardous due to possible heavy fuel oil contamination or from chemicals released by wetted commodities? This would pose a problem in containing the contaminated water dripping from the units that are being discharged. Environmental safeguards will have to be set up accordingly.

Health and safety risks
Wetting to ‘organic’ cargoes (especially if prolonged, ie through submersion in flooded holds), aside from developing mould spores and possible insect
infestation, would, in some instances, trigger a process of self-heating and fermentation – the latter being in terms of decomposition, generally
accompanied by the evolution of gas. Wet damaged organic cargoes having high oil content have a tendency to self-heat or even suffer spontaneous combustion. Different organic cargoes display various degrees of biotic activity, but under normal circumstances, CO2 (carbon dioxide – an asphyxiant gas) would evolve. Organic commodities when wetted and
submersed in seawater for long periods of time would produce other dangerous gases such as:

  • H2S (hydrogen sulphide – a colourless, flammable, highly toxic gas with a ‘rotten egg’ smell)
  • HCN (hydrogen cyanide – a colourless poisonous and flammable gas resulting from the combustion of organic materials)
  • CH4 (carbon tetrahydride, better known as methane – a non-toxic but extremely flammable gas)
  • CO (carbon monoxide – a poisonous colourless, odourless and tasteless gas).

Certain chemical cargoes, if carried dry, pose no harm, but if they come
in contact with water, chemical reaction could alter their state and they could become dangerous.

Shore operations

Shoreside preparation
The handling and unloading operation of the distressed cargo from the
ship must be synchronised with the operation ashore. The shore site must be ready to receive the distressed cargo. In particular:

  • Equipment and materials must be available and ready.
  • Contractors must be tasked and properly instructed for the challenge ahead.
  • Wharf space and storage space may be limited.
  • Local laws and regulations are usually restrictive.

Surveyor liaison
Another important part of distressed cargo management is dealing with the many surveyors, who make representations on behalf of the various shipping lines and the cargo interests. The volume of email communications is usually extremely large and the co-ordination and planning of the surveys can be very time-consuming.

During the survey work, container door-end inspections are generally carried out in order to take swift on-the-spot decisions regarding whether cargoes are to be declared total losses or whether they can be reworked in order to realise any full or residual value, possibly at final destination or perhaps by way of arranging salvage sales, if local laws allow. Follow-up surveys may need to be carried out at the time of reworking/ cross-stuffing, ie unpacking for repacking into replacement containers where the original units are no longer suitable for onward shipment.

Waste disposal

Disposal of waste (whether this is cargo or container shells) will also need to be managed, and prior to proceeding with this exercise, the affected units may need to be cleaned and the total loss consignments may need to undergo separation of materials for recycling (eg wooden pallets, plastic wrapping, cardboard cartons, metal, glass, chemicals, etc).


In summary, a great deal of coordination and constant control is required in order to ensure a successful cargo management operation which covers both shipboard and shoreside logistics. Consideration of economic, environmental, logistic, administrative and legal parameters is critical, as are excellent and expedient communication and relationship management skills.

Categories: Cargo, Major Casualty Management

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