Digital Forensics, Global News, Marine

Containers Lost at Sea

22 November 2021

Increased Cargo Capacities, Climate Change, and Port Congestion Induced Risk

Globally, there are currently over 6,000 active ships carrying containers and the twenty-foot-long containers (TEU) capacity of the container ship fleet has grown by nearly 76% between 2017 and 2020.1 Given this tremendous growth on a large worldwide fleet, the climate change-induced increase in tropical cyclone intensity, paired with the recent congestion at major ports worldwide, amplifies the risk exposure for containers to be lost at sea.

Climate Change

Just looking at the North Atlantic alone, cyclone intensity has visibly increased over the last two decades, with eight of the ten most active years since 1950 occurring within the last 25 years.2 Per the United States Environmental Protection Agency, climate change is expected to affect tropical cyclones by increasing sea surface temperatures, a key factor that can influence cyclone formation and behaviour.2 Globally, based on observations since 1980, the intensity and rate of intensification of tropical cyclones have increased similarly.3

Port Congestion

There has always been pressure on shipmasters to provide timely and economical delivery of cargo. Port congestion and supply chain shortfalls are delaying transits and putting masters in difficult positions in which they often choose to proceed through the path of a storm rather than adding miles and additional time to the transit. 80% of all goods are carried by sea with the container trade estimated at 60% of all seagoing trade, which caused issues when the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic hit.4

As consumers were quarantined in their homes, online orders began to surge and most of the goods being ordered were, and are, increasingly being carried on larger container ships that only a few major ports can accommodate.  This surge exposed shortfalls in containers, trucks and drivers, port workers, and ageing transportation infrastructure. Ultimately, the logjam at these major container ports has created a trend for storing large amounts of cargo on single vessels with delays increasing the risk of cargo exposure to extreme weather events.

Recent Container Losses 

Between 2008 and 2019, there was an average of 1,382 containers lost at sea each year.5 Between late 2020 and 2021, the number of containers lost dramatically increased with several larger incidents including ONE APUS, which lost 1,816 containers on November 30, 2020, MAERSK ESSEN, which lost 750 containers on January 16, 2021, MAERSK EINDHOVEN, which lost 260 containers on February 17, 2021, and ZIM KINGSTON which lost 109 containers on October 22, 2021, among others. ZIM KINGSTON is a particularly relevant case because the vessel remained at sea, just off the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, was subjected to storm-related 16-to-20-foot seas due to port congestion and sustained 35 to 40-knot winds.6

Regulatory and Operational Preventative Measures

Container losses at sea are not a new concept and regulatory and operational preventative measures already exist. These measures, which can be adjusted based on changes in anticipated risk like storm severity, are essential for ship operators to safely stow and secure containerized cargo. 

Trim and Stability Booklet

Container ships are typically required to provide the master with a Trim and Stability Booklet. The Trim and Stability Booklet supplies the master with rapid and simple process instructions to obtain accurate guidance on the stability of the ship.  This includes determinations for initial stability, which impact the stiffness or tenderness of the vessel. A stiff vessel tends to right itself in a quick and jerky manner, which can increase transverse accelerations experienced by the containers and stress securing of containers. A tender vessel has a slower roll that provides another form of test for container lashings as cargo is inclined for longer periods. The master must ensure compliance with the Trim and Stability Booklet as a first step in safe carriage of containers.

Cargo Securing Manual

Container loading, stowage, and securing must be in accordance with a Cargo Securing Manual approved by the relevant classification society. A ship’s Cargo Securing Manual provides guidance as to how cargo is stowed and secured for transit. The Cargo Securing Manual details securing arrangements suitable for the forces expected to affect the containers loaded on the ship. The forces on the containers act longitudinally, transversely, and vertically, and must be calculated based on accelerations anticipated in each direction. Additionally, the accelerations must be based on the ship’s route, voyage details, vessel length, service speed, vessel breadth and metacentric height, height of the cargo, force from wind pressure, and force from sea sloshing. The securing of containers typically consists of lashings of wire rope, chain, lashing rods, and tensioners. Stacking of containers make use of twist-lock locking devices, cones, or other stacking aids.

Modern containerships possess software that can aid the master or chief mate in determining compliance with the Trim and Stability Booklet and Cargo Securing Manual. This software is heavily relied upon by the modern cargo ship crew as a check on compliance with all criteria including required trim and stability, container stack weights and heights, and container lashing, among others, but the feedback provided by software and manuals are only as correct as the information provided as input. 

A vessel’s master and chief mate must personally ensure cargo loading and securing are performed as intended. Many large shipping companies employ stevedoring companies, companies that specialize in loading and unloading vessel cargo, to load and secure containers on the ship in accordance with the Cargo Securing Manual. The chief mate is typically assigned as the cargo officer and oversees the loading, stowage, securing, and unloading of cargo. 

Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering Expertise

Despite all the preventative regulatory and operational measures, stevedores and crews do make mistakes in implementation, engineers involved in plan development can miss something, or ships can encounter risks like unexpected heavy weather. Container losses can include multiple causal factors originating from stability of the ship, securing of the cargo, stack weight, stack height, and even complications like a loss of propulsion. 

The complex mix of stability review, accelerations calculation, forces applied to lashings, weight distribution on decks, and other advanced calculations require an expert that is uniquely trained as a naval architect and marine engineer to truly get to the bottom of each loss. If the precise causal factors are not identified the first time, the same loss may reoccur.

Preserving Ship Data Following a Loss

In the aftermath of a large container loss, interested parties may request or move to compel forensic acquisitions of the ship’s electronic evidence for the purpose of preservation of the data contained within.  This can include computer, mobile phone, video recordings, and location-based data. Pre-emptively collecting this evidence in a forensically sound manner preserves the evidence in case of future litigation, ensuring that it is spoilation proof.  Retaining a digital forensics expert for a forensic analysis is vital to safeguarding data preservation, data collection, and data recovery.  

Ocean Marine Cargo Insurers

As large container ships become stuck in logjams at major ports worldwide, large amounts of cargo are left at risk to the more intense heavy weather events of recent years. Ocean marine cargo insurers must plan for the increased risk that can lead to major container losses due to the surge in shipments and lack of port resources. 

It is essential for insurers to identify naval architects, marine engineers, and digital forensics experts to properly identify causal factors in the loss while protecting critical electronic evidence. Naval architects can review the Trim and Stability Booklet to ensure it was appropriately developed and meets regulatory requirements, examine Cargo Securing Manuals to ensure the specific accelerations and forces utilized in calculations are appropriate, and provide oversight on the input and output to any computer software tools utilized by the crew. Marine engineers can help uncover the causation behind any related loss of propulsion which exacerbated the severity of container losses by rendering the vessel defenceless against the sea state. Digital forensics experts ensure that critical ship electronic evidence related to stability and container securing is collected and safeguarded so data preservation, data collection, and data recovery is spoliation proof, in case of future litigation.    



2 EPA Climate Change Indicators: Tropical Cyclone Activity


4 Container shipping-statistics & facts

5 World Shipping Council Containers Lost at Sea 2020 Update


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About The Author
Lars Daniel
Practice Leader
Digital Forensics

Mr. Lars Daniel is the Practice Leader of the Digital Forensics Division. Mr. Daniel has qualified as an expert witness and testified in both state and federal courts, qualifying as a digital forensics expert, computer forensics expert, cell phone forensics expert, video forensics expert, and photo forensics expert. He has testified for both the defense and prosecution in criminal cases and the plaintiff and defense in civil cases.

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