Clay Maitland

On a quest for quality in shipping

Let’s sort out containerships?

Posted on | April 2, 2012 | No Comments

It is now six months since the modestly sized cellular containership Rena came to a sticky end on a well marked reef off the New Zealand Port of Tauranga. Approximately half the cargo has been taken off the ship or scraped off the bottom of the sea since the grounding, and with winter closing in, it looks like a long haul for the salvors charged with chasing the boxes and their contents around the vicinity of the wreck, carrying off their nauseous contents to landfill and eventually, chopping up the wreck into bite sized chunks for export to Chinese scrapyards.

In short, the aftermath of such a marine accidents will occupy large numbers of specialists, from average adjusters and lawyers, along with the salvors and wreck-removal specialists, several years of expensive activity. Insurers will pay, of course, but this will be eventually spread liberally through the industry.

On the Chinese coast a not dissimilar accident to the Bareli – a ship of comparative size -looks suspiciously like a salvage and wreck removal operation of similar timescale. Might something be going wrong here in the liner trades, which many of us were brought up to believe was the “Rolls-Royce” end of the shipping industry, but now seems to be scraping the bottom of the standards barrel? Should we be concerned that ships four times the size of Rena and Bareli are sailing the seas in some numbers? You bet.

If you were something of a sceptic, you would suggest that the so-called “liner” trades are now dominated by two cultures – one the one hand that of cheapness, and the other the need for schedule precision. They are difficult to reconcile, with the desperate need to satisfy the charterers and the shippers screaming for their just-in-time goods, with the lines trying furiously to control their costs. One might also suggest that the fact that the ships are regarded as nothing more than delivery vehicles, and their crews as mere drivers, also tends to diminish their sense of self-worth. This is not exactly helped by the miserable existence of those aboard ships which are operating under the accountants’cosh.

Unfair to blacken the reputation of an entire sector? Possibly, although it might be recalled that the same sort of reputation attached to those who operated tankers, perhaps twenty years ago. It is tankers today which lead the field in maritime standards, and the containership operators, who don’t even know what is in the boxes they carry half the time, which bring up the rear. Maybe we should do something about this problem before the first 16,000TEU ship charges up on some reef.

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