Maersk Essen loses hundreds of containers in North Pacific

About 750 containers have fallen overboard from a Denmark-flagged containership in rough weather in the North Pacific.

Illustration. Image Courtesy: Kees Torn on Flickr under CC BY-SA 2.0 license

The incident occurred while the 13,100 TEU Maersk Essen was sailing from Xiamen, China to Los Angeles, California, on 16 January 2021.

The boxship, which is owned by China’s Bank of Communications, commercially controlled by Danish shipping giant Maersk and deployed in TP6 Asia/US West Coast service, experienced heavy seas during the crossing, resulting in the loss and damage of containers.

“All crewmembers are safe and a detailed cargo assessment is ongoing while the vessel continues on her journey. The US Coast Guard, flag state and relevant authorities have been notified,” Maersk said in an emailed statement.

“We view this as a very serious situation which will be investigated promptly and thoroughly. Operations and vessel safety are our highest priority and we will be taking any necessary steps to minimize the risk of similar incidents occurring in the future,” the company added.

Containers lost at sea

The World Shipping Council (WSC) recently released its 2020 update showing that, on average, 1,382 containers are lost at sea every year.

Despite a downward trend in the 2017-2019 period when 779 containers were lost every year, 2020 has seen a sharp increase due to a one-off catastrophic incident involving the containership ONE Apus and several other, minor incidents. The Japanese-flagged ship lost more than 1,800 containers due to severe weather conditions while transiting the Pacific Ocean in late 2020.

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According to WSC, more than a half of all containers lost at sea are attributed to the limited number of major incidents that have occurred in the past few years.

“However, the industry recognizes that all containers lost at sea represent safety and environmental hazards regardless of how and when those containers were lost,” WSC said in the 2020 update.

“Accordingly, the 2020 Update to the Containers Lost at Sea Survey no longer differentiates between catastrophic and noncatastrophic losses and includes only total containers lost at sea. It is this number that the industry seeks to reduce, and we continue to work with governments and other interested stakeholders to identify losses, their causes, and actionable solutions to reduce the losses in the future.”

Poor structural problems or a string of unfortunate events?

It is clear that proper packing, stowage and securing of containers and reporting of correct weight are very important to the safety of a containership, its cargo, workers and equipment, and the environment. However, even with proper stowage and securing aboard ship, a number of factors ranging from severe weather and rough seas to more catastrophic and rare events can result in containers being lost at sea, WSC noted.

Apart from ONE Apus, more boxships such as the 14,052 TEU ONE Aquila and the 8,452 TEU Ever Liberal were recently involved in, what are perceived as “rare, one-time incidents”. In November 2020, the Panama-flagged ONE Aquila lost approximately 100 containers in bad weather off the US coast. Similar conditions caused the collapse of more than 30 containers from Ever Liberal off the Japanese coast in late December.

Referring to the newest incident involving Maersk Essen, Lars Jensen, an expert in the container shipping industry and CEO and Partner of SeaIntelligence Consulting, raised the question about a possible structural problem with stowage.

“When the ONE Apus lost some 1800 containers overboard in a Pacific storm in 2020, it could be seen as a fluke. An unfortunate one-off. Surely if there was a structural problem, this is an issue we should have seen more of given the sheer numbers of large container vessels,” he said.

“Now Maersk Essen has lost 750 containers overboard – also in a Pacific storm. Hence the question – is this a fluke twice in a row – or a sign that we might actually have a structural problem with stowage when vessels are consistently filled to brim?”