The international shipping industry is currently wrestling with a spate of fires aboard vessels at sea in recent months that have crippled several big cargo ships, killed a number of seafarers and cost companies and their customers hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.
The latest blaze came on March 10, when a nearly 31,000-ton combined container and automobile carrier caught fire in the Bay of Biscay off the eastern coast of France, leading to the rescue of 27 crew members by a British Navy frigate.
The Grimaldi Lines-operated Grande America sank two days later, taking more than 2,000 cars that included luxury Audi and Porsche models, to the seafloor.
The disaster was the fourth big ship fire in the past four months, and followed a handful of fires last year that included one that heavily damaged the megaship Maersk Honam, owned by Denmark’s A.P. Moller-Maersk A/S, the world’s largest container ship operator by capacity, and killed five crew members.
Maersk officials say the string of incidents is likely a coincidence, but it has raised alarms among operators, insurers and shipping customers, and focused more attention on the safe handling of the big quantities of goods that move on increasingly large and packed oceangoing vessels.
“It was a wake-up call,” Maersk’s head of fleet technology, Ole Graa Jakobsen, said of the fire that broke out March 6, 2018, on the Maersk Honam, a 353-meter (1,158 foot) ship with capacity for 15,000 containers, in the Arabian Sea.
Maersk has since barred the stowage below deck of dangerous goods and other shipments that may be resistant to fire fighting. The cause of the Honam fire, which took five weeks to bring under control, remains under investigation, but Maersk has said the ship carried shipments classified as dangerous goods.
A report by Wall Street Journal stated that ship operators, insurers and regulators increasingly are focusing on the chemicals, batteries and other goods that can trigger or feed a fire.
Although the causes of ship fires are difficult to pinpoint, transport and logistics insurer TT Club estimates that around two-thirds of all incidents are the result of “poor practice in the overall packing process” of dangerous goods, which are often misidentified or undeclared.
The insurer said there is a fire at sea every 60 days on average, and overall insurance claims in excess of $500 million annually.
The group estimates some six million containers, or 10 per cent of the overall capacity moved across the oceans, contain dangerous goods, and nearly 1.3 million of those boxes aren’t properly packed or are incorrectly identified.
The potential damage from such incidents has grown as carriers have moved to ever-larger vessels, concentrating more containers on a smaller number of ships. That can raise the chances that dangerous goods are onboard and the rush to handle many thousands of boxes at port call may raise the chances that poorly packaged dangerous goods can slip through.
Products like barbecue charcoal can burst into flames when the temperature rises and others like fish food and pool-cleaning agents generate oxygen that can intensify the blaze.
The National Cargo Bureau, a surveying body that assists the U.S. Coast Guard to enforce safe navigation, said four per cent of 31,000 boxes it checked in 2017 contained dangerous cargo that wasn’t properly secured.
Another survey of 1,700 vessel stowing plans said 20 per cent of the plans weren’t in line with existing dangerous-goods rules.
Some transport officials say shippers who circumvent dangerous-goods rules with false declarations should face criminal penalties. But German container line Hapag-Lloyd AG , which says it gets around 3,000 undeclared or misdeclared bookings a year, believes stricter rules won’t help.