This is one way containers are lost at sea.

The Inevitable

It happens. It has always happened and it will continue to happen. Some cargo is lost from rough handling, some through improper packaging, and some cargo simply falls overboard from ocean going vessels. Ocean carriers don’t want to lose container cargo, but it happens just the same. We see reports in the media of the more spectacular losses. Lately industry news has been awash with photos of crippled and burning vessels for us all to see. Sadly there is sometimes loss of life at sea as well. These are the losses we see and talk about. There are container losses we don’t see as well. They get mentioned by someone somewhere, but never shine enough to get the attention of most of us.

Some Big Some Not So Big

December 09, 2017 the Leonie P lost 24 containers overboard off the Netherlands coast. On January 05, 2018 the MSC Eloane lost between 30-45 containers off the coast of Spain. On March 03, 2018 the Maersk Shanghai lost between 70 and 73 containers 17 miles off the coast of North Carolina in the United States. On March 19, 2018 the Hamburg Bay and the Tolten collided causing more than 20 containers at Karachi Harbor in Pakistan to hit the drink. You never heard of these losses? Don’t let ‘not being in the know’ erode your self-esteem. Most people don’t hear about the losses unless they are local to the loss. It’s likely the good people of North Carolina knew about the Shanghai. It’s hard to miss losses that close to shore.

It’s not that ocean carriers hide the losses. Most vessels report the losses to the local coastal authorities like the United States Coast Guard so they can issue a warning for other crafts of potential floating hazards. Moreover, the vessel typically has to contact the next port of call due to possible damages and complications on their vessel caused by the loss. It’s pretty hard to hide a leaning stack of containers from the Harbor Pilot. Then the ocean carrier must report the container losses to … well, no one I know of. That dear reader is why you don’t see repeated reports by a central body of container losses at sea. While there are a few independent sites posting what losses they know about as well as Lloyd’s publishing vessel incidents, there is no centralized reporting body keeping score and publishing the results for simple non-hazardous container losses at sea for the public to see.

Why do containers go overboard? 

There are quite a few reasons. Two of the many causes are collision and fire which likewise hold significant risk of loss of life at sea. There are also instances of things as mundane as unlocked manual twistlocks on hatch covers causing containers to be lost as happened to the Maersk Suzhou on January 06, 2018 in the North Atlantic. Although it should be no surprise the reason most often cited for container loss at sea is good old fashioned weather. The thing everyone talks about but never does anything about cause most instances of container loss. Despite advances in technology and vessel design, the sea remains a dangerous place. Vessels caught in rough seas are exposed to incredible forces.

Okay, we get it. Weather and rough sea make containers go overboard. This was my mindset until I spoke with Master Mariner Robert Lee. Robert enlightened me while weather and rough seas can be the reason for containers losses, there can very likely be contributing factors as well. In one loss he studied, Robert found although weather may have been the primary reason for the incident it was not the only reason.

The Case Study 

The loss occurred in the Pacific Ocean. More than 20 containers were lost with others left hanging at a 45 degree angle off the deck from the amidships (middle of the vessel) and aft of the ship’s accommodation (crew quarters, galley, recreation area, etc.). Yes, there was nasty weather as is the case with many losses. Our subject vessel had run the route countless times before in all sorts of weather. This run was different.

The Shippers Hand in the Loss

The subject container loss at sea in 2004 was caused by bad weather but really started with the cargo containers themselves. The subject incident occurred before SOLAS and specific weights were confirmed by shippers. Over loaded containers were regrettably common as shippers tried to get the most out of every transport dollar. The rule of thumb for some shippers was if there was still air in the container it wasn’t fully loaded. This resulted in many grossly overweight containers being tendered to vessels endangering the container vessel as well as the crew.

Human Error

There is a stowage plan created for every vessel. The plan’s purpose is to maximize both economy and safety on board a vessel. Modern stowage plans are calculated by computer by use of complex mathematical equations. The plan takes into account the size and weight of containers and, like your Mom, says what goes where.

One weakness a stowage plan can have is the data provided by freight owners was used and a computer can’t tell if a shipper was fibbing or not. For our subject sailing any overweight container weights taken at the gate by personnel and the loading crane operators never got red flagged. Moreover, after investigation it was found that containers on board said to be empty were found at the bottom of stacks instead of the top. The human error combination of heavy containers being loaded, poor cargo planning, as well as aged and corroded containers that should have been taken out of service set the stage.

Yes the Weather

The weather deteriorated during the voyage and the master had his hands full reporting winds upwards of 10 on the Beaufort Scale and the vessel was rolling heavily. If you are wondering, starting at 0 the Beaufort Scale only goes to 12. As the vessel pitched and rolled older empty containers began to flatten under the weight of loaded containers. The pancaking of the empties caused slackening of cross lashings allowing the top heavy stacks to begin to sway back and forth in the rough seas. As most of us know, the best way to pull a pole out of the ground is to push and pull it back and forth to loosen things up. The swaying of the stacks had the same impact. The stack split allowing containers to lean over the side and some drop into the sea. While the ship’s master was able to stabilize the vessel, there was little he could do about the containers and their peril. The loss of containers was unavoidable. Or was it?


Cargo losses often are not the result of a single element or a large particular failure. In many instances losses are a culmination of a series of smaller failures combined together at a certain place and time to create a situation making the loss unavoidable so the loss must happen. On the occasions you see a cargo loss whether it is at sea, in the air, or on the ground, in the media there will be an apparent reason for the loss. You can bet stacked up behind the apparent reason there are contributing factors making the reason possible.

In the transport of goods there is no process, procedure, or detail that is unimportant. While one ‘white lie’ or one ignored procedure may not cause calamity individually, combined with other small failures in a very long chain to the destination can bring an epic catastrophe. It’s worth serious consideration whether our case study container loss would have happened at all if it were not for the contributing factors, The true accomplishment is not coming up with a good procedure, it’s following it day in and day out without fail. After all the sinking of the Titanic infamously ended with an iceberg, but it started with weak low grade rivets in a Belfast shipyard.

In most instances I write articles using my own experience, knowledge, and research. That is not the case with this effort. I couldn’t have written this article without the help and input of Robert Lee who has my thanks.

In closing I would like to leave you with a link to a YouTube video. The video shows some of the forces vessels and mariners that move our goods endure. Give thought to what you see the next time someone says a short cut won’t hurt anything.