Container Losses: "Captains Under Pressure to Meet Schedule"

This is a translation of an interview with Captain Ruud Behren recently published in the Dutch Nautical Newspaper Transport.

Nautical advisor Ruud Behrend, who sailed as helmsman, captain and sea pilot on all kinds of ships from 1958 to the early 1980s, climbed into the pen about the recent container losses on the high seas, including that of the “Maersk Essen”. According to him, the main cause of the accident is commercial pressure from shipping companies, who press captains to continue sailing even in bad weather and not to adapt course and speed to the circumstances.

Do you speak from your own experience?

No, we never experienced this in my time. But I often notice, in my current position as inspector for the flag state of Barbados, that ship managers mainly chase Eastern European captains. That ship manager only wants one thing, and that is for the ship to keep sailing on schedule. And those captains are very law-abiding, because they are terrified of getting fired. As a result, they sometimes take far too much risk.

What happens to those containers if a ship just keeps sailing during storms and heavy waves?

Such a ship will receive enormous stormy seas. This is also evident from the investigation report on the container loss of the “MSC Zoe” to which I contributed. A wave hits the hull of a ship, climbs upwards and thus becomes twice as high. The water then strikes that container with enormous force. According to experts from the Marin research institute, this can amount to as much as 40 tons per container. This is called green water, to distinguish it from a wave with a foam head. You could say solid water.

Why do you have to slow down and change course?

Because then you get much less counterforce. The captain has to pick up enough speed to keep the ship easy to steer. As far as possible with wind force ten or eleven. You change course about twenty or thirty degrees and let the ship lean against the waves, as it were. Then you ride down that storm until it calms down. In short, lower the ship’s speed and lay to. But that is no longer in the manual. Captains today are under almost constant pressure to meet the sailing schedule.

Does a captain endanger his ship and crew in the same way?

Yes definitely. It is also simply the law: it states that good seamanship requires that a captain must do whatever it takes to protect his ship and crew.

What consequences does a captain risk who contravenes instructions from shore?

That’s very simple: dismissal. Ship operators can choose from hordes of Russians, Ukrainians and Poles with captain’s papers, which, incidentally, is fine. They are eager to get to work, because they can earn much more money at sea than at home. As an inspector for the Barbados flag, I just notice that almost all Eastern European captains are terrified to their boss.

According to a Spanish colleague of yours, Javier Madiedo, the complex loading and unloading process in the port is the main cause of container loss at sea. Who is right?

I think it is a combination. If these containers are indeed not properly secured as a result, sailing too fast increases the risk that they will go overboard in heavy weather.

Could the “MSC Zoe” disaster two years ago have been prevented if that ship had changed speed and course?

Short and sweet: yes. What is surprising is that in the report of the Dutch Safety Board it is nowhere to be found how fast the ship was sailing when it lost all those containers. But AIS data shows that this must have been between fifteen and seventeen knots. That’s hard, with so much violence around you.

You were involved in that investigation. Did you insist that cruising speed should be stated?

Yes, I thought that was important information. Surely you should be able to find in a report like that exactly how fast that ship went and what course it steered? But is not in it.

Have you received an explanation as to why the cruising speed was not stated?

No. And there is another crazy thing. Such a ship has a voice recorder that records the conversation on the bridge between the captain, the helmsman and the helmsman. Just like in the cockpit of an airplane. When we overheard that recording, we only heard howling containers. Those boxes on deck rub against each other in heavy weather. That makes a huge noise. You can compare it to the noise that a tram sometimes makes in a bend, but then two hundred times as bad. Still, it is strange that the voices on the bridge cannot be heard. I have been involved in more studies and normally you can follow the conversation very well, even in bad weather. But here: nothing. I had never experienced that before.


Am sure most have exprienced this, no matter what cargo you were moving. Was always pressured by desk jockeys early in my career to make ETA’S. My later years, did my own thing regarding weather and fog…They gave up trying to push me. Wished I had that attitude early on. Slept much better as I aged “Gracefully”.

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The contents of this article correlates pretty well with the comments made by captain Ruud Behrend. Extending the number of bridges to six is good but will still be insufficient to avoid losing containers, although less.

From a safety point of view above deck cargo will always be a hazard. It is inferior in strength compared to the hull of a ship and when hit hard will succumb under the sometimes merciless wave power.

One wonders whether it is time to go back to the drawing board and develop a new type of global cargo transport system. Think out of the box. But I am afraid that as long as the losses are marginal and financially manageable nothing will change. The easiest measures now are having a sophisticated and reliable bad weather avoidance system, go easy on the throttle and ignore the guy ashore who is responsible for the slot machine. The latter will be tough…


AFAIK, ACL has never lost a single container in the North Atlantic route and they’ve managed to do it without reinventing the wheel.
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The focus of the discussion here is mainly about recent container losses in the Pacific.

Why would ACL’s method for securing containers not be just as effective in the Pacific?


Looks like not only ACL got the idea that full height guides is a good (and cheap??) insurance against container loss at sea:

The Cyprus registered 1350 TEU container ship CONTSHIP ICE at the Damen shiprepair in Curacao. She was built in 2011 and her sdwt is 17,191 t. Her length is 161,32 mtrs and width: 25,04 mtrs. and the vessel’s imo nr is 9517422. Photo: Aart van Essen ©

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One wonders about bonuses paid to captains who meet schedule.

How do the hatches work when the cell guides go all the way up

What is seen on that ship (Contship Ice) are not cell guides but lashing bridges.

One thing that tends to get lost in the conversation with regards to cell guides, whether those below deck or those that may extend above the main deck, is vessel trim. If trim isn’t kept reasonably near even keel during loading and discharging ops it doesn’t take long for guides to get damaged and the resulting risk of containers getting lodged between guides. I have been on a number of ships during cargo ops when we were down by the stern over 10ft. (3m). It is amazing the containers can be loaded and discharged at those angles. The guides take a beating when they do.

the ONE ship lost the containers in the Pacific as it was going too slow due to port congestion in USA

Ship to shore gantry cranes are fitted with spreaders feature that allows adjusting for trim, list, skew to a certain extent.

The probable cause of this is the reduced roll damping. Roll damping is speed dependent, it is reduced with low ship speed.

If, as in the case of the MSC Zoe, the ship’s speed had been larger than 10 knots then this would have prevented the cargo loss. At 14 knots ship speed, the cargo loss could have been avoided definitively, at 12 knots most probably. Especially in combination with a high GM reduced roll damping will be responsible for high container loss.

The crew of also this ship has not been aware of the fact that their hull did not produce sufficient roll damping at low ship speed.

It’s worse on a geared container ship when you have lousy crane drivers. We carried two fitter welders that were kept very busy in South America. Their hours and material was recorded and charged to charterers account.

The schedule was slow…they have to go slow so they can say they are carbon neutral…lol

Whatever happened to the hatch coverless containership concept of the 90s?

I believe the concept of the hatch coverless containership had several drawbacks. Container strengths and stack weights become an issue. The hold tank top would need the extra strengthening to handle all the weight versus it being split between the tank top and hatch cover. It reduces cargo flexibility with the advent of other lengths besides the standard 20 and 40 foot containers. There is also a loss of production as the cranes have to bring the containers to the full height of the guides on every load or discharge. With open hatches you are pumping out a lot more water out of the holds. With stricter oil pollution regulations do you process the cargo hold bilges all through the OWS or pump it straight over the side since it is not “machinery space” bilges? Our policy was to process it all through the OWS because you never know…

Yeah, I never really thought too much of the idea, and I never personally have been onboard one. I know that Matson had a couple, but I just wonder if the idea died a justified death.