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Hot property – containership fires and what is in the box

Hot property – containership fires and what is in the box
I have just been reading an account of a fire on board ship, where the crew, after extraordinary efforts, managed to save their vessel and bring her into port.

The incident took place aboard a sailing ship in the South Atlantic in the last years of the 19th century, when a cargo of coal overheated and caught fire. In pre-radio days, without any mechanical assistance, the crew turned to and over a period of more than three weeks, patiently dug out the hot coal and threw it overboard, while the ship struggled southwards toward the Horn.

The hazards of such a cargo were well understood and over the years, there were many ships which burned out and were abandoned when the fires got out of control, or the crew were less determined.

You would think that we had advanced a long way since those desperate days, but the hazards of dangerous cargo seem every bit as live as they were in the days of “wooden ships and iron men”. And in some respects, the problems of a small crew, with limited facilities and restricted abilities to access fires in vast container stacks resemble the dilemmas faced by sailing ship seafarers with a fire aboard, far from any assistance.

Fires in containers are not exactly everyday occurrences, but happen often enough to make seafarers and their insurers increasingly nervous about their chances of getting one under control and saving the ship. After a recent serious fire in a very large container ship it was said that it had been exceedingly fortuitous that the emergency had occurred with the ship near a major port. Had the circumstances been replicated a week earlier, with the ship in the middle of the Indian Ocean, the result could have been very different. The law of averages would suggest that sooner, rather than later, there will be the worst possible outcome, with goodness knows what implications.

All too often, it is cargo that has been wrongly labelled or wilfully described as non-hazardous that has led to these conflagrations. Shippers, who either don’t care or have something to hide, play the percentage game, oblivious to the potential threats to lives and other people’s property. And while on land they would find themselves swiftly exposed to criminal charges if the worst happened, at sea, after a major fire, blame is rather harder to attribute with any accuracy.

A perfect example is the scandal of fires and explosions which have been caused by Calcium Hypochlorite in containers. This relatively low value chemical, used in swimming pools and bleaching agents, it might be thought is not worth the risk of carrying it by sea and could surely be locally manufactured. But there are some 400,000 tonnes lugged around the world each year aboard container ships and not a few shipments have caused a great deal of grief to everyone involved.

There has been no mystery about the hazards associated with this stuff, but shippers still ignore packaging recommendations, ship it under different names to confuse those trying to implement the IMDG Code, or lie about the nature of the goods they are stuffing into a container. They might just be ignorant, but that is a charitable interpretation.

So this month, the International Group of P&I Clubs, along with the shipping line members of the Cargo Incident Notification System (which came into being largely because of these irresponsible shippers) has produced a completely new set of guidelines for the carriage of Calcium Hypochlorite in containers. You might think the message would have registered by now, with a long trail of smouldering ships and burned boxes stretching down the years, but a lot of these people clearly don’t care, even though, if it is carried properly, it is obviously much safer. The guidance is supposed to be clearer and more logical and if it actually registers with shippers, might discourage them from bad behaviour, while promoting a bit more confidence among the carriers. You can lead a horse to water.......