Home' Baird Maritime : July 2011 Contents The graveyard watch
Thoughts from the distinguished maritime commentator Michael Grey MBE.
In every container terminal of a reasonable size you will find a
"graveyard", usually hidden from the view of the passing
public, as it tends to give a somewhat negative impression of
the cutting edge logistics industry the terminal proprietors like
It consists of the remains of steel containers, mangled beyond
repair, exhibiting signs of horrible torture by unfeeling powerful
machinery. Some have been torn apart as if they were constructed
of cardboard, rather than corrugated steel; others resemble
something that had been sat on by an overweight elephant.
These are, it might be assumed, the physical remains of
accidents, but if you ask knowledgeable terminal managers, they
will tell you that in most cases that have resulted in these gruesome
remnants, it was attributable to somebody's negligence or neglect.
It was not an accident that caused one container amidst this
pile of junk to have been loaded with about twice the weight it was
designed to carry. I suppose it might have been the fact that the
ill-educated souls who loaded it congratulated themselves on
getting the doors shut on the huge load they had stuffed into the
container, although the haulier who found his truck straining to
get over the hills on the way to the docks might have smelt a rat.
The terminal staff in the loading port might have worried that
alarms went off on the crane that loaded the container, but speed
was of the essence in their busy schedule and as nothing actually
broke, the passage of the overweight box went unremarked.
Indeed, it was not until the vessel was in heavy weather that a
frightful commotion on the afterdeck alerted the crew to the fact
of a stack collapse. And as the wreckage of the boxes that had not
fallen over the side were retrieved in the discharge port, the
suspicions arose that this particular container and its ludicrous
overweight contents might have been responsible.
So the remains were shovelled ashore and the various claims
investigators, cynical souls who have seen it all before, did their
work. But it is quite difficult, especially if contents have ended up
in the sea, to attribute blame to any one container as being that
which was responsible for all this grief and damage. Maybe the
lashings were not as securely fastened as one might wish. Perhaps
the master was ill advised to persist with his course through the
storm. There is no shortage of alternative sources to which blame
can be deflected.
In the same graveyard, their decals fading in the sun, can be
seen other damaged containers. One has come to a violent end
because corrosion was combined with a heavy cargo to rip out a
corner post as it was lifted high over the quay. One simply fell off
a lorry as it went around a tight corner, the cargo within it
having been loaded with all the weight on one side at a
consolidation station where the workers had no concept of how
loads should be balanced.
The point is that almost all of this damage that occurs to
containers and their contents, and the ships and vehicles they are
loaded on, is unnecessary, preventable and often exceedingly
dangerous. So it is good that the International Maritime
Organisation has decided to intervene more robustly on this issue
of misdeclared weights, as it is quite obvious recommendations,
codes of practice and non-mandatory measures have been
ineffective. As with so much that goes on in this great shipping
industry, anything that is not required by regulation will be
adhered to by the best practitioners, and ignored by the rest. It is
encouraging that the International Chamber of Shipping and
World Shipping Council, which published their container code
some years ago, have called on the IMO to require container
weights to be verified, and that the Maritime Safety Committee
will now appoint a specialist sub-committee to undertake the
necessary preparatory work.
It probably won't happen in a hurry, so maybe the industry
itself could get on with the provision of weighbridges in port gates.
Why it has taken so long, I just don't know. Perhaps the lines
don't want to antagonise the shippers unduly. Perhaps the lines
and the terminals play a percentage game and as long as the
wreckage in the graveyard is kept at a reasonable level, there is no
need to rock the boat.
But the boat may well be rocked -- indeed, it may turn over due
to the number of overweight containers that have been loaded
and drown all the seafarers aboard. Whole stacks of very
unpleasant cargo might go over the side and cause serious
pollution. Why is it such a big deal to establish the weight of a
container? All the lorries that go in and out of our recycling
centre -- "refuse transfer station", if you prefer -- trundle over the
weighbridge and barely have time to put on their brakes. And
maybe putting on the brakes is what we must do to these practices
that are so potentially hazardous.
While we are at it, we might also take a look at container
contents, and the same sort of misdeclarations of hazardous goods
which are not uncommon, and do cause accidents. After a trailer
turned over on a Bass Strait ferry, a shipper who had failed to
declare hazardous goods was fined. But compared to the penalties
flying around for spilling a little oil, or other things that happen at
sea, a couple of thousand dollars did not seem much of a deterrent.
They can probably live with that.
July 2011 BAIRD MARITIME
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