mol comfort

Containership Cargo Care – A Ticking Time Bomb?

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July 15, 2013

(c) Indian Coast Guard

By Michael Grey

I may have been taken to task for blaming the cargo (weights) for breaking the MOL Comfort in half, but I am probably on a safer wicket if I suggest that it was the cargo which saw off the forepart of the ship, along with 2672 containers.

It would be interesting to learn what was in the container which appeared to spontaneously ignite on the deck stack of the ship’s forepart as she was being towed slowly towards land. It ought to be easy enough to identify, as those on the towing tug would have a reasonable view of the further problem they had to deal with.

But there will be plenty of choice, as it seems that pretty well the whole deck stack was composed of containers that only needed a severe look to have them burst into flames. Rather too long under the fierce heat of the sun, with no 20 knot breezes from the ship’s motion acting to cool their boundaries as the bow wallowed in the Arabian Sea and any number of container contents could have ignited in their oven-like stowage.

In the pre-container liner trades we used to lavish the most extraordinary care upon our cargo, with the utmost attention paid to ventilation, the avoidance of condensation, ensuring the circulation of air around the holds, with a king’s ransom paid each voyage on dunnage and Kraft paper. I recall a tween deck full of fish meal, which we nursed across the Indian Ocean like a sick child, taking its internal temperature about twice an hour.

“Carefully to carry” was a manual we knew by heart. Who remembers that?

Now, it’s bunged into a steel box, behind a sealed door, to be cooked like the contents of an oven across tropical seas, the sun beating down on the upper tiers. It probably isn’t helped that the cargo in this vulnerable position in the stow is quoted in the DG book, apart from that which the shipper, either carelessly or malevolently, has neglected to declare.

My question is this:

After we have managed to lose an 8000 teu ship and everything aboard her, what are we doing to avoid a ship twice the size burning to the waterline? Barely noticed as the Comfort break took everyone’s attention, was the fire aboard one of the Maersk big “E”s which, because of prompt and diligent work by the crew, was confined to but a few boxes. They might not be so lucky the next time.

Michael Grey is the former Editor of Lloyd’s List and Fairplay, currently the London Correspondent of BIMCO and holder of a British FG Master’s Certificate. He writes for a wide range of maritime titles and lectures at the World Maritime University, Greenwich Maritime Institute and General Stevedoring Council.

Article originally posted on the Clay Maitland blog, republished with permission.

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