In the event of a serious incident
The shipping world has recently been shaken by three spectacular incidents: the full containership Rena, owned by a Greek company but chartered by MSC, in October 2011 was left stranded on the New Zealand barrier reef, splitting in two and sinking, and leaking tons of fuel into the sea. This created the most serious environmental disaster in the history of those territories, considered one of the planet’s last remaining natural paradises; cruise liner Costa Concordia capsized in January 2012 in front of Giglio island, causing the death of several passengers; in July 2012 the full containership MSC Flaminia was badly damaged by the explosion in the Atlantic of some containers it was carrying, leading to the death of two crew members. (19) For one reason or another, in all three cases things happened showing that age-old rules of the sea are no longer being respected. In the case of the Costa, a captain abandoning ship before passengers and crew are rescued, for the Rena a government that fails to halt a ship on which 17 breaches of safety norms have been detected by controlling bodies, and for the MSC Flaminia the ports of three major nations (United Kingdom, France, Portugal) that refused to give shelter to a damaged ship. Market deregulation appears to be eroding the practices and morals underpinning the pride and identity of seafaring men. On 4 February the ULCC Emma Maersk underwent damage to its engines caused by a flooded engine room while it was entering the Suez Canal, and had to be towed to the nearest port. This accident, which did not cause damage to persons or to waterways, suddenly brought up a number of questions about what might happen if one of these “giants of the sea” crashed or had serious damage to its engines or to steering equipment in a port, a sensitive waterway or in the middle of the ocean. (20) The best known sea salvage company, working in cases such as Costa Concordia and MSC Flaminia, is Dutch company Smit. One of its managing directors, Klaas Reinigert, former President of the International Salvage Union, one week after the Emma Maersk incident, gave an interview to “Lloyd’s List”, published on the website on 13 February. (21) There was a time when firms specialising in salvage
operations were family concerns, now they belong to groups that expect an adequate return on their investment, and as salvaging is not part of their core business they do not invest more than is necessary. Smit forms part of the Boskalis group, Mammoet of the Steenkolen Handels Vereniging group, Svitzer is part of Maersk, and Titan of Crowley. Titan’s owner, asked why he had sold his company to Crowley, replied: “because I did not have the capital outlay required nowadays to perform the long and complicated salvage or wreck removal operations.” Since there is no foreseeable return on the investment made, firms no longer invest in the modernisation of necessary systems and technologies. “Consequently behemoths of container vessels cannot be offloaded when such a vessel has been involved in a collision and subsequent grounding, stranding, explosion or fire, or being partly submerged”, Reinigert said, adding: “only the big crane vessels operating in the offshore oil and gas industry are capable of discharging these ships, but these cranes are either not available, too expensive or cannot come alongside due to their draft”. Fifteen years ago the P&I Club, the consortium of maritime insurance companies, came up with the idea of financing salvage companies, working together in close cooperation: where one did not have the means or the possibility of adequately intervening, another would step in to assist. “Imagine if this was the case ashore with regard to the ambulance service, or your house was on fire, and first you had to phone a broker or negotiate who was permitted to take you to the hospital or would be allowed to extinguish the fire of your house”, Reinigert goes on, and adds, “Time will come when the maritime world will be faced with a huge containership casualty (…) and what will be the means then to handle such a calamity?”. The new generations of salvage experts will have to have very different training for systems that that cannot remain those in place today.
Giant ships may therefore be of some utility to shipowners, to operators, but they are currently of little use to the market, to the logistics chain, or to the economy. On the subject of safety they are a serious unknown. The “Emma Maersk”, towed to the shipyards of Palermo with 13,000 m3 of contaminated seawater in its engine room, 13,537 Teu onboard, 7,112 of which empty, is emblematical of this senseless business. (22)
19. On the Rena disaster the New Zealand government http://www.maritimenz.govt.nz/Rena/QandA.asp gives more detailed information; on the MSC Flaminia incident there is for subscribers http://www.lloydslist.com/ll/sector/containers/article412352.ece an exceptional eye witness account from a passenger, a former sailor, and a sequence of shocking photos taken by him.
20. Craig Eason, A ship’s Achilles’ heel, on “LLoyd’s List” of 20 February 2013, mentioning the possibility that the vessel will be broken up due to the uncertainty about repair costs.
21. Salvage industry must make way for new blood, says former ISU chief, edited by Liz McMahon.
22. Exact cargo figures in Emma Maersk towed to Palermo, 19 February 2013, “Lloyd’s List”. “Vale Beijin”, the world’s largest bulk carrier, also had a ballast tank damaged during its inaugural trip, and had to be towed back to the yard.