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Boxes on bulkers? Yes with reservations, say safety experts

Carrying containers on bulk carriers ‘probably not the best solution to the current problem’, according to Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty safety head Rahul Khanna

Drawbacks highlighted include lack of securing mechanisms, crews not trained in container handling, increased chance of container damage and weather dangers to deck loads on vessels with lower freeboards

THE recent surge in the use of bulk carriers to carry boxes — both on deck and in holds — is safe in principle, industry safety experts and marine insurers believe, although some have obvious reservations about the practice.

Among the drawbacks highlighted are a lack of securing mechanisms, crews not trained in container handling, an increased chance of container damage, and the dangers to deck loads on vessels with lower freeboards, especially in bad weather.

Most of the problems boil down to the irreducible fact that bulkers are just not designed for the task into which some are now being pressed, specialists reiterated.

All things considered, carrying boxes on bulkers is “probably not the best solution to the current problem”, according Rahul Khanna, global head of marine risk consulting at Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty and author of the definitive annual survey of loss trends from a marine insurance viewpoint.

Lloyd’s Register chief surveyor Iain Wilson added: “It’s safe enough if it’s done properly. There isn’t anything that should stop you being able to do it.

“But it’s not a case of, I’ve got a ship, I’m going to put containers on it tomorrow. Owners have got to think about it, got to plan, and will have to spend a little bit of money to do it.”

The issue has arisen in the wake of current unprecedented demand for container slots, thanks to disruption to the supply chain resulting from the pandemic, leaving some shippers ready to resort to unorthodox measures.

In consequence, smaller and medium-sized bulk carriers — especially handies — are sometimes loading hundreds of containers in their holds.

Older hands insist that this is not unprecedented and has previously been seen in times of overheated box markets.

But it does not appear to have been a common occurrence, even during the supercycle shipping boom of the noughties prior to the global financial crisis.

Even now, the phenomenon appears relatively limited. Best guesses would suggest that perhaps a few dozen voyages of this type have so far taken place. However, many more are likely if current market conditions persist, observers believe.

Bulk carriers have long been able to carry a limited number of containers on deck without further formality, under the International Maritime Organization’s Code of Safe Practice for Cargo Stowage and Securing, known as “the CSS code” in shipping jargon.

Carrying boxes in the hold is not against any regulation as such but does rely on the loophole that the Safety of Life at Sea convention does not closely define what is meant by “intended to carry dry bulk”.

Permission should be sought from the flag state administration and from class, and insurers notified, according to guidance from West of England.

Capt Khanna argued: “Bulk carriers are essentially made to carry bulk cargoes, such as coal and iron ore.

“The reason they don’t carry breakbulk cargo, general cargo or project cargo is that they don’t have enough securing points to withstand all the forces we can expect during a voyage.

“Also, the shape and design of a bulk carrier cargo hold is not conducive to these sorts of cargo.”

The same principles can be extended where bulkers are hauling boxes, for which they may not have proper securing mechanisms. In addition, their crews are unlikely to have training in correct lashing techniques.

Moreover, bulk carriers sit lower in the water than containerships, which means that weather conditions will have more impact.

While AGCS is ready to underwrite such voyages, perceived risk would be higher, and pricing would reflect that.

“We would have to carry out a detailed risk assessment if a bulk carrier suddenly started to be used as a containership.

“We would not recommend it, and if the owners consulted with us, we would have to look in detail at what they are trying to do.”

Mr Wilson pointed out that conventional bulk carriers, being equipped with topside tanks, hoppers and narrow hatch covers, are hardly optimal for containers.

Nor are there foundations and lashing points to transmit the point loads from the container points into the structure as efficiently as on a container vessel.

The partial exception is a specialist vessel type known as box hold ships, a sub-type of bulker customised for palletised cargoes. Box hold ships can accommodate containers more easily and have bigger and stronger hatch covers.

Modifications to ordinary bulkers, such as use of temporary cell guides from the hatch coamings down or use of twist locks with appropriate planning, may also be considered.

Bulker operators seeking permission from class to carry boxes would have to devise a container securing arrangement plan, which would need prior approval, Mr Wilson added.

If the intention is to carry two layers of containers on deck and/or more than three layers in the holds, an approved lashing computer system or an approved lashing plan for each individual voyage would also be required.

Where dangerous goods are to be carried, there are additional regulations with which compliance is again necessary.

Mr Wilson confirmed that LR has received enquiries from bulker owners seeking to carry boxes, but as of Tuesday had not taken them further.

“The approval piece wouldn’t take too long; you could probably turn that around in a couple of weeks. But it’s then getting the cargo securing manual written up, and the stowage plans.

“Owners would have to do their work, and then there would be structural assessment around the transmission of loads where containers are going to be, to make sure they are not landing on an unsupported panel and the loads are properly transmitted.”

The challenge with bulk carriers will be to obtain sufficient deadweight to get the vessel far enough down in the water.

“A bulk carrier is designed to carry bulk cargoes which fill the whole hold. The density of the containers you could get into the hold would mean a fairly light draft, I would have thought.”

In sum, Mr Wilson’s only real concerns would be if an owner went ahead without proper approvals in place.

Peregrine Storrs-Fox is risk management director at the TT Club, a marine mutual that insures the supply chain, including a fair proportion of the world container fleet.

“If containers are being carried in bulkers and this gives rise to more incidents, that’s obviously going to increase losses throughout the industry,” he noted.

“But assuming the bulk operators are going through the processes and getting the right sign-offs, then in theory at least, all the safety measures are being followed.

“It’s obviously of concern where ships are transferred in use and the crews may be less familiar with the changes that may occur during a voyage.”

However, the TT Club would of course pay out on valid claims in case of loss, he confirmed.

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