Friday, July 5, 2013

Sea Freight Interests Anxiously Watch Container Shipping Updates on Major Incidents and Overcapacity

MOL Comfort and Emma Maersk Situations Managed in Different Styles as Insurers and Shipbuilders Watch Developments
Shipping News Feature

JAPAN – DENMARK – WORLDWIDE – In the past few months we have witnessed two major incidents involving recently built container vessels, one with a direct affect principally on the ship’s owners, Maersk Line, and the other, the recent foundering of the MOL Comfort, which will have ramifications for so many in the supply chain, from suppliers through freight forwarding agents, insurers and not least, shipbuilders.

The main point to mention is that, despite the serious nature of the two occurrences, nobody was killed or in fact seriously injured, either in the recent sinking, or in the accident in which damage to the stern thrusters of the Emma Maersk caused an ingress of water which then flooded the engine room in February. That incident led to the suspension of the use of the thrusters in all E class vessels whilst the cause was investigated, whereas formerly, all the ships had been using them routinely in every port.

Speaking to the Handy Shipping Guide today, Ole Jakobsen, Head of Ship Engineering at Maersk Maritime Technology, said that, although a provisional view had been formed as to the exact cause of the damage and subsequent flooding, Maersk was still investigating together with Rolls Royce, to establish the precise, initial reason for the breaking away of some propeller blades within the thruster, which in turn caused the thruster tunnel to crack. Since she was towed to the container terminal berth at Suez and on into dry dock, the Emma Maersk has not sailed operationally but the Maersk spokesman confirmed that full sea trials are imminent.

With the persistent overcapacity in the market there will have been no great pressure to rush the Emma Maersk back into service, although we are told there are no Maersk owned vessels currently mothballed despite the glut of box vessels available for the amount of global cargo, the same can probably not be said of long term charter vessels however. Just a matter of weeks ago the three largest container carriers agreed to join forces in an agreement known as P3, in which Maersk, together with MSC and CMA CGM, will offer combined services as we previously reported, in an attempt to rationalise an industry where rate increases are no longer taken seriously given the willingness to do deals on rates, sometimes at ridiculously low cost.

We enquired as to how the new agreement will affect the ‘Daily Maersk’ services, which was the company’s attempt last year to shake up the market by offering guaranteed departure and delivery times, with cash penalties payable to shippers if it failed to meet the terms agreed. Maersk assure us that the collaboration with the two other box carriers will mean no change to Daily Maersk and, in response to our questions, verified that all three companies, were already in a dialogue with the relevant anti-trust authorities, and with each ones own legal representatives, regarding filing formal documentation to have the cooperative manoeuvre approved.

Any problems which Maersk have had to face after the Emma Maersk calamity have paled in comparison to those faced by Mitsui OSK Line (MOL) who have had to immediately review all the MOL Comfort’s six sister ships* for possible faults as detailed in our earlier article. It would presumably be wrong to call the 17th June incident a sinking considering that, whilst the aft part of the vessel has descended to the bottom, the fore end still ploughs doggedly toward the nearest port, assisted by various smaller vessels.

When the rear of ship did finally succumb, after floating independently in poor weather conditions for ten days since breaking in two, the collective groan from insurers and shipping executives alike, was almost audible to passer’s by. One wonders what the scene must be like at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries whose Nagasaki yard built the vessel a mere five years ago. MOL, Mitsubishi and Japanese government representatives have started an initial investigation with the involvement of Nippon Kaiji Kyokai under whose Class NK specifications the fleet was constructed.

A cynical observer might have expected a closing of ranks amongst the Japanese groups, but MOL has now appointed a representative from London based Lloyd’s Register (LR) to draw on the company’s unrivalled expertise to comb through both the original design and construction specifications for the 91,000 dead weight tonne vessel, which had a capacity of 8,110 TEU, and the condition, maintenance and stowage factors.

The LR team will doubtless be studying closely the metallic profile of the ship’s hull given the fact she broke in two and was built, as were the rest in class, using a relatively new ‘ultra-high strength’ steel. Whether this meant thinner plates in a bid to lighten the hull is not known, however all shipbuilders have been striving for several years to ensure vessels are constructed with environmental considerations very much to the fore. The accident was reminiscent of the 2007 demise of the MSC Napoli in the English Channel after her hull split, leading to her eventual demise and causing a reassessment of hull loadings by both builder and classification societies.

What is certain is that the problems created by the Comfort’s capsize will be prolonged. There will obviously have to be a full assessment of the cargo lost to the sea, plus the freight in any containers which are successfully discharged from the fore part, if and when she makes port, will have to be checked for condition. Other problems of course are self-evident, the dangers of literally countless containers wallowing sub surface spreading across the ocean and containing all manner of hitherto unknown cargoes, not to mention fifteen hundred tonnes of fuel oil somewhere in tanks now beneath thousands of feet of water.

The environmental twin threat posed by these factors are somewhat ironic in a week when MOL has been able to proudly announce it has been recognised by the ports of both Los Angeles and Long Beach for its efforts to ensure compliance with standards that call for vessels to slow down within 40 nautical miles of the California coastline, in order to comply with that state’s stringent emission reduction requirements.

*overall twelve vessels of the class were constructed, seven currently being owned by MOL.