What’s the Weight? Why Weighing of Cargo Containers is Critical

Last year in a Persian Gulf port, we finished loading for a southbound transit to East Africa on a small container ship.  Our load plan showed that we would be down to our marks once finished loading.  Over the last couple of hours, a close eye was kept on the load line to ensure we didn’t overload – only a couple of months prior, loading had to be stopped early as the vessel was down to the marks.  On this day, however, the load line never got near the water.  When the calculated draft tonnage was compared to the actual draft tonnage, close to 1000 MT of cargo appeared to be missing.  So, where did it go?

Both these situations – one, containers that are lighter than declared and two, containers that are heavier than declared are hazardous to the vessel and prevent a carrier from loading a vessel for maximum profit.  Containers that are heavier than declared can prevent a ship from loading all containers planned – a situation that we have seen frequently in Persian Gulf and East African ports recently.  If the container is heavy enough, it can potentially cause damage to cranes and equipment when loading and discharging.  At sea, an overweight container can cause higher loads than anticipated on lashing gear – potentially leading to a loss of cargo in the wrong conditions.  While the overweight container is more commonly seen, the underweight container as noted above has its own hazards.  Namely, where was the weight removed in the overall load?  Was it taken from up high?  If so, the vessel will have greater stability.  Was it taken from down low?  If so, the vessel will have less initial stability – a hazardous situation when you take into account the relatively narrow margins normally used.  The underweight container also takes away from the potential cargo carriage, i.e. more containers could have been loaded.

These situations have not gone unnoticed in the shipping industry.  Although there are requirements in SOLAS (SOLAS Regulation VI/2) for a declaration of the gross weight of the container, there is no requirement for the actual weighing of the container.  The sole exception to this actual weighing requirement is for export from the United States.  Recently, a broad spectrum of industry organizations and countries, Denmark, The Netherlands, the United States, BIMCO, the International Association of Ports and Harbors (IAPH), the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), and the World Shipping Council (WSC) submitted a formal proposal to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to require all containers to be weighed in order to determine their actual weight.

IMO MSC 89-22-17 Comments on Mis-Declared Cargo Weights (Comments and clarifications on the proposal submitted)

In July 2011, guidance was given to the IMO Sub-Committee on Dangerous Goods, Solid Cargoes and Containers as follows :

IMO DSC 16/14 Development of measures to prevent loss of containers

The target date for modifications (if any) to SOLAS is 2013.  The Sub-Committee on Dangerous Goods, Solid Cargoes and Containers is meeting between Sept. 17th and 21st and it will be of great interest what progress has been made on this issue.

One company in the industry that has moved forward with an eye on a regulation requiring the weighing of all containers  is Strainstall.  They have developed their own container weighing system that could be integrated into a normal container crane.  While the intent is to install these sensors on the spreader twistlocks on the crane, it might be better to install such sensors on straddle carriers or container stackers.  This would allow using the actual weight for planning proactively, rather than responding re-actively after the ship is loaded.

It appears that much needed regulation requiring the actual weighing of all containers is coming down the road.  Additional information on the securing of cargo containers is available in A Master’s Guide to Container Securing provided by the Standard P&I Club and Lloyd’s Register.  It contains information of which all deck officers on container ships should be aware.

The Armed Security Response to Piracy…..and Some of the Hassles

MV Ocean Atlas, a U.S. flagged cargo ship fell afoul of Venezuelan authorities during a recent port call in Maracaibo.  Although the situation has been resolved, with Ocean Atlas said to have sailed on Friday, September 14th, this incident highlights a growing issue in the maritime industry.  Aside from the alarming trend of criminalizing merchant mariners, whether for pollution incidents or other serious marine incidents, there are many countries threatening criminal and civil penalties for carrying weapons on board merchant vessels for self-defense.

Somali piracy off the Horn of Africa has been at least temporarily suppressed, largely through the use of armed security teams.  Piracy off the West coast of Africa in the Gulf of Guinea off Nigeria, Togo and Benin is skyrocketing.  It is highly likely that Private Maritime Security Companies (PMSC – an IMO designation) will find increasing employment off the West coast of Africa as well.

Armed security teams means that arms (weapons) will have to be on-board the ships.  But, how to get them there?  

Due to the difficulty of transporting weapons and gear through foreign countries en-route to a vessel, many shipping companies have found it easier to load weapons and ammunition in their home countries.  This eliminates the issues arising from transporting weapons through airports or shipping them to a ship’s agent in a foreign port.  When the vessel approaches the High Risk area, the Privately Contracted Armed Security Personnel (PCASP – another IMO designation) fly out, join the vessel and break out the weapons stored onboard.  Unfortunately, this tactic of having weapons on-board the vessel at all times, regardless of where the ship is operating, brings about exactly the situation in which Ocean Atlas‘s crew found themselves.

Another option that has gained some traction is the use of floating armories.  In this case, a vessel such as a converted oilfield supply boat, is stationed in the Red Sea, Straits of Hormuz or South of Mozambique to board provide passing vessels with security teams their weapons.  This eliminates the issues involved with merchant vessels arriving in port with weapons onboard.  It does however, create the necessity for an open ocean transfer of weapons and/or personnel.  Such a transfer is not always the easiest – whether due to sea conditions or time of day.

The following video is courtesy of ABC News and provides some good insight into the world of armed security onboard merchant vessels :

There are many countries that have implemented regulations and/or procedures for dealing with weapons entering their ports.  The following are some of the ones that have come up recently :

Egypt : Currently illegal to have weapons on-board while transiting coastal waters or Suez Canal.  In order to transit Suez Canal, the offload of weapons and land transport to the other end of the canal is required.

India : Weapons and ammunition must be secured in a locked weapon safe when entering Indian territorial (12nm offshore) waters.  Vessels transiting the Indian EEZ (200 nm offshore) and carrying armed security must make reports to Indian Coast Guard and Navy.  In either case, a complete declaration of security personnel and weapons must be made within 96 hours of entering Indian EEZ.

Yemen : Substantial “fee” normally paid by shipping agent to Yemeni Coast Guard.

Kenya : Weapons required to be removed from vessel and stored in armory ashore during port stay.

South Africa : 96 hours (4 days) notice required.  Numerous ship masters have been detained and charged under the Fire Arms Control Act.  Previously, 21 days notice had been required prior to arrival when carrying weapons for self-defense.

Venezuela : As per U.S. Coast Guard, “Vessels planning to enter Venezuelan ports and carrying security weapons, are advised to ensure proper registration and confirmation from the appropriate Venezuelan Customs authorities prior to entry, and to heed any concerns regarding their carriage by country agents.

Further encouragement is given to reconsider the need to carry weapons on your vessel during port calls in this country. This equally applies in other ports. There are still grey areas and ports may have rules that do not match with the country rules.

In all cases, weapons and ammunition must be declared to customs officials.  Not doing so will leave the imprudent master w-i-d-e open to criminal charges and penalties.  Contacting the company’s agent well in advance of arrival in a foreign port for advice is highly recommended.  This will allow time to make entry declarations and notices in a timely manner.

As piracy is growing off the West coast of Africa and the underlying cause of Somali piracy has not been addressed, the need for on-board security personnel and in particular, armed personnel, does not appear to be going away anytime soon.  Proper education in regulations and security procedures is essential for any deck officer sailing in High Risk waters.  If formal training is not available to you, there are ample online sources including  IMO, UKMTO, SAMI, IAMSP, ASIS, ICS/ISF and BIMCO to name just a few.  Regulations, procedures and security risks change on a daily basis – just because something worked or was acceptable on the last voyage doesn’t mean it is now.

USNS Rappahannock : NOT Enrica Lexie

USNS Rappahannock is a U.S. Navy fleet oiler operated by the Military Sealift Command (MSC) and manned by civilian mariners (CIVMARs).  Rappahannock was involved in an unfortunate incident in the Persian Gulf off the port of Jebel Ali yesterday.

Whereas many vessels have their security plan tested during preplanned drills, Rappahannock’s was tested under a real-world scenario where they were faced with an unidentified rapidly approaching small boat.  There will be armchair quarterbacking and investigations for the crew of Rappahannock, but at first blush, it appears that when faced with an unknown threat, the crew and security detail enacted their preplanned security procedures to good effect.  It is regrettable that those procedures brought about the injuries and deaths of innocent fishermen.  However, the potential outcome could have been equally deadly for the crew of Rappahannock if no action had been taken and there had been ill intent on the part of the skiff’s crew.

The following timeline was provided by the U.S. Naval Institute and brought to Madden Maritime’s attention by fellow alumni from N.Y. Maritime :

USNS Rappahannock Security Incident Timeline

This incident illustrates the very short period of time from the start of a security incident to its resolution when dealing with small fast boats – whether they are pirates, terrorists or innocent fishermen.  There is generally not time to formulate a plan of action, therefore bridge crew and security personnel must rely on preplanned and drilled scenarios.  Again, it is unfortunate that innocent people were killed or injured, but when a U.S. naval asset is confronted with a small unidentified boat approaching at high speed, NOT taking action would be almost unforgivable given the world’s current security climate.