Monday 26 August 2019

Lost containers and 29,000 rubber ducks: Inside the curious world of container shipping

Container ships have to brave some of the world's worst weather. Photo: Getty
Container ships have to brave some of the world's worst weather. Photo: Getty
Thecargo ship MSC Napoli lists in the sea on January 22, 2007 off Branscombe, England. Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
Heavy machinery moves shipping containers that have come ashore on Waihi beach in the Bay of Plenty on January 9, 2012 a day after the cargo ship Rena broke up in a storm. Photo: Marty Melville/AFP/Getty Images
Rubber duck, all at sea. Photo: Getty/EyeEm
Terschelling, NETHERLANDS: People walk on the Dutch island of Terschelling after thousands of shoes washed on the beach in 2006. Photo: Arie Ouwerkerk/AFP/Getty Images

Hugh Morris

Some 50,000 shipping vessels are bustling away on the world's oceans, delivering the cargo that makes much of our world tick.

Dwarfing cruise liners in size, freight behemoths transport millions of containers hundreds of thousands of miles a day - some ships can carry 20,000 at a time - while 33 million exist in total.

So, it is perhaps no surprise that not all make it to their destination safely.

As revealed in the BBC's Blue Planet II recently, it is thought some four a day are lost to the waves, however, other industry estimates have put it much higher at 10,000 a year - that would be about 27 a day.

What happens to them?

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Thecargo ship MSC Napoli lists in the sea on January 22, 2007 off Branscombe, England. Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Most will sink, though it can take up to two months for some 20-foot containers (a standard size) to disappear beneath the waves. A refrigerated container might be buoyed by its insulation and drift on the seas for longer.

But these are not the ones that garner interest.

In 2006, thousands of bags of Doritos crisps washed up on the beaches of North Carolina’s Outer Banks after a container carrying them split apart in the Atlantic.

Every day hundreds of LEGO pieces wash up on Perran Sands in Cornwall, and other nearby beaches, after a container ship carrying the toys was hit by a huge wave in 1997, sending tonnes of its cargo overboard.

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Rubber duck, all at sea. Photo: Getty/EyeEm

The most famous such incident, and the one discussed by David Attenborough on Blue Planet II, was the rubber ducks, better known as the Friendly Floatees.

After a containment of some 29,000 plastic yellow ducks, red beavers, blue turtles and green frogs were washed into the Pacific in 1992, the little toys began appearing on beaches around the world, from the west coast of America, to South America, Australia, and by 2007, Europe.

The travels of the ducks was used by oceangrapher Curtis Ebbesmeyer to map the global currents of our oceans, though they were already working on a model, tracking 61,000 Nike trainers lost overboard in 1990.

Not all are quite so cute, though

For one thing, low-floating shipping containers create a hazardous obstacle for other vessels, but should that container be carrying hazardous chemicals or pollutants, then it can impact the ocean’s eco-system.

How do they get around?

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Heavy machinery moves shipping containers that have come ashore on Waihi beach in the Bay of Plenty on January 9, 2012 a day after the cargo ship Rena broke up in a storm. Photo: Marty Melville/AFP/Getty Images

A BBC experiment in 2008 that tracked a single container for nine months showed the reach of commercial shipping, with the BBC Box starting in Southampton and visiting Los Angeles, Yokohama, Brazil and Hong Kong, among other destinations. In its time it carried cargo including whisky, catfood, ink and monosodium glutamate.

What about shipping disasters?

Maersk, the world’s largest shipping company, says its largest annual loss of containers was 59. The Through Transport Club, which insures and risk manages top freight firms, reckons fewer than 2,000 containers are lost a year.

In 2011 the World Shipping Council explained that even with proper and secure loading, “a number of factors ranging from severe weather and rough seas to more catastrophic and rare events like ship grounding or collision can result in containers being lost overboard”. It said that during a “catastrophic loss” more than 50 containers can be lost in a single incident.

It estimated that without including such events, some 350 containers are lost each year, and with the larger events, 675.

In 2002, a massive cargo ship, the MV Tricolour was moving through the English Channel bound for Southampton with a load of some 3,000 BMWs, Volvos and Saabs, when it collided with another container ship. As many as 2,862 cars and 77 units of cargo that included tractor and crane parts was lost.

The Tricolor would two days later be struck by another vessel, carrying 70,000 tonnes of highly flammable gas oil. Later a third ship, a tug, would hit the Tricolour, knocking off a safety valve and triggering a massive oil spill.

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Terschelling, NETHERLANDS: People walk on the Dutch island of Terschelling after thousands of shoes washed on the beach in 2006. Photo: Arie Ouwerkerk/AFP/Getty Images

What is the world's largest container ship?

That would be the OOCL Hong Kong, built this year by Orient Overseas Container Line and capable of holding 21,413 20-foot containers. At more than 1,300 feet long and nearly 200 wide, it’s basically four football pitches of boat.

The largest container ship in history was the Seawise Giant, which was in service for 30 years ferrying crude oil across the globe but finally sold for scrap in 2010 at a ship breaking yard in India. In her heyday, this ocean beast weighed more than 564,000 tonnes, measured 1,500ft in length and took a full five miles to slow to a halt, such was her bulk.

Can I travel on one?

Absolutely.

Travel agent Cargo Ship Voyages specialises in laymen exploring the world on a cargo ship.

“Travelling on a cargo ship is a unique experience.  Whether you love the sea, are conscious of your carbon footprint, don't like flying or simply prefer to sail in a relaxed atmosphere, away from the crowds, then travelling by cargo ship is the right choice for you,” reads its blurb.

It advises that most cargo ships can only carry six passengers, and age restrictions might apply. It warns that passengers should remember that “these are hard-working cargo ships, not cruise ships”.

But it means weeks on the open sea, all around the world. Anyone fancy an 80-night trip from Singapore to Melbourne and back?

Read more:

30 weirdest things that have washed up on beaches around the world

Telegraph.co.uk

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