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Transportation News

Container Ship Breaks In Two, Sinks 361

Posted by Soulskill
from the how-not-to-ocean dept.
Cliff Stoll writes "Along with 7000 containers, ship MOL Comfort broke in half in high seas in the Indian Ocean. The aft section floated for a week, then sank on June 27th. The forward section was towed most of the way to port, but burned and sank on July 10th. This post-panamax ship was 316 meters long and only 5 years old. With a typical value of $40,000 per container (PDF), this amounts to a quarter billion dollar loss. The cause is unknown, but may be structural or perhaps due to overfilled containers that are declared as underweight. Of course, the software used to calculate ship stability relies upon these incorrect physical parameters."
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Container Ship Breaks In Two, Sinks

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  • by Spy Handler (822350) on Friday July 12, 2013 @06:37PM (#44265689) Homepage Journal

    so they operate on an honor system?

    One would think they'd weigh the container themselves and charge accordingly. But then I'm not in the shipping business so I dunno...

    • by DaHat (247651)

      While I agree... I can only imagine the time cost involved in doing so... unless the cranes used for loading have a built in (and very precise) scale that could be used for such purposes.

      • by roc97007 (608802)

        How precise does it need to be, I wonder? If the purpose is to avoid having the ship exceed its load specifications, I suspect it wouldn't have to be precise to the ounce.

        "And now, one wafer thin mint."

      • by waddgodd (34934)

        You mean a strain gauge on the winch? Yeah, NFW anyone could set that up

      • by sjames (1099) on Friday July 12, 2013 @07:19PM (#44266095) Homepage

        Many cranes DO have a scale built in. 250,000 Kg capacity accurate to 50Kg. That should do the job.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 12, 2013 @06:49PM (#44265799)

      It was my understanding that the cranes weigh each container as they are loaded on the ship. This is done because they can't afford mistakes in calculating the center of gravity of the ship. There is no honor system.

      • by Firethorn (177587)

        What if somebody is bribing the crane operator or whoever collects up all the paperwork? Sadly, in the world of business you have to count on corruption more than not, especially outside the USA.

        • by DaHat (247651)

          Sadly, in the world of business you have to count on corruption more than not, especially outside the USA.

          How is that any different than in the world of government where the right greased palms can get this project approved or policy approved or killed?

          At least with business you can choose who you do business with, not so with government.

        • by isj (453011)

          Then they would also have to bribe the captain, because the ship can detect imbalance when adjusting the ballast tanks. And bribe the crane operators at the destination port. And since it is usually country-to-country transport they may have to bribe the customs at the final destination.

    • by Motard (1553251)

      Well, if your software relies on incorrect parameters (as stated in the summary), you wouldn't want to go fixing that.

    • by dj245 (732906)

      so they operate on an honor system?

      One would think they'd weigh the container themselves and charge accordingly. But then I'm not in the shipping business so I dunno...

      The Maersk EEE class ships can hold roughly 18,000 20-foot containers. Do you think it is practical to weigh all of them?

      It is relatively easy to put a load cell on a crane and weigh a container there. One could envision a system where the crane weighed the container and then decided where it should go. However, this is tricky because these ships are usually loaded by many cranes at once and you can't decide that the container is too heavy and should be put in place by a different crane.

      • by ImprovOmega (744717) on Friday July 12, 2013 @06:57PM (#44265865)
        I think it's practical to weigh each one on the crane lifting it and if it's more than maybe 3-4% over the declared weight you don't ship it. Especially if failure to do so can cause a $250 million whoopsie.
      • You might be able to just put the container away, continue loading and then at the end correct the center of gravity with a container filled with the correct amount of bricks (the idiot who misdeclared the weight was nice enough to leave room on the ship for the brick container).

      • by Solandri (704621) on Friday July 12, 2013 @07:22PM (#44266139)
        The containers don't magically appear next to the crane for loading onto the ship. They have to be lifted off of trains or trucks which bring them to the docks. Then they sit and wait for the ship to arrive and be unloaded. Then they're loaded onto the ship. It'd be trivial to weigh them when they're first taken off the train or truck.

        A more prone failure point is corruption among the dockyard workers - they get bribed to ignore that a container is overweight. This used to be common at airports before 9/11 and before they started charging for every checked bag. If you had an overweight bag which the airline would charge $75 for, you simply went to curbside checking. Slip the airline employee there a $20 and he'd tag it as if it were a regular bag. I was shocked the first time I saw my uncle do it (for a Delta flight at LAX), but the employee was blase about it as if it were normal. And now that I knew what to look for, I saw it happen several times in the few minutes I was there.
      • The Maersk EEE class ships can hold roughly 18,000 20-foot containers. Do you think it is practical to weigh all of them?

        Of course it is. They all have to get loaded by crane, so the crane can weigh them all. The crane also knows where it puts the containers, so once the load is complete then the port can spit out a map showing the location and weight of each container (and charge the shipping line for the report, if they want it). It doesn't matter if the ship holds 1,000 containers or 100,000.

    • by Jaime2 (824950) on Friday July 12, 2013 @07:07PM (#44265981)

      Perhaps they could paint a line on the side of a large vessel floating in water and see if the containers displace enough water to submerge the line. Oh wait, that's what they do with all container ships. It's impossible for the whole ship to be over weight. It is possible to have a poorly distributed load, but that's not likely to cause the type of accident that happened here (it would more likely lead to capsizing).

      Overweight containers are more of a financial issue than a safety issue. Leaving 500 containers on the dock or leaving under-loaded are both bad for business.

      • by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 12, 2013 @07:16PM (#44266069)

        Perhaps they could paint a line on the side of a large vessel floating in water and see if the containers displace enough water to submerge the line.


      • by Motard (1553251)

        Here's a thought experiment for you: Take a humongous cargo ship of some displacement. Now, gather enough shipping containers to achieve a weight close to, but less than that displacement. Now, put one in the center of the ship. Then, stack the rest on directly on top of that. If they don't fall directly through the bottom of the ship, they will break the ship in half. Which is what happened here.

        • by Jaime2 (824950)

          Even if that was what happened, that has nothing to do with overloading. Verifying container weight wouldn't solve the problem.

          BTW, did you even look at the pictures?

          • by Motard (1553251)

            I didn't mention overloading, did I? I specifically stipulated a cargo weight less than the displacement of the ship. In the best case, this arrangement would float just fine.

            However, if you don't get the weight distribution right, a safe load becomes unsafe. And, as I said, if the bow and stern both crest on waves, with an improperly loaded ship, the middle could collapse.

            Now, I will concede that I didn't look at the pictures before posting. Now that I have, I feel vindicated. Look at those pictures a

        • Hogging (Score:5, Insightful)

          by M0HCN (2981905) on Friday July 12, 2013 @08:14PM (#44266503)

          It looks to me more likely the problem was excessive weight at the bow and stern rather then midships, the effect is called hogging and is a known way to snap a container ship (or oil tanker) in half, both have occured in the past.
          Basically the keel (The BIG beam running all the way from bow to stern down the bottom of the hull) can only take so much sheer stress and if the weight distribution does not match the localised boyancy implied by the current displacement you can very easily bend the ship.

          If and how it came to be loaded that way will be one of the things on the investigators list.

          There is of course software used to look at this stuff but it cannot realistically be run on the dock during a very tight turnaround, so the declared weights are used as the only data available in advance of starting loading. Not only does that mess of linear algebra have to give a fully loaded ship with the centre of mass and moment of inertia in the right regions (Important for stability and handling), it must also ensure that the total cargo mass per linear meter is roughly the same as the boyancy of that meter of wetted hull at all times during the loading.

          Further shippers will sometimes pay a premium for say not having a can of high value goods put in a corner on top of a stack where it is somewhat more likely to be lost, and some of those cans may be 'reefers' (Refridgerated containers) requiring both power and ventilation to remove waste heat, the problem swiftly becomes complex, doubly so as the ports stacking order also feeds into this if you want loading to go smoothly.

          A nasty accident, but nobody died, and the hull and cargo will have been insured, so a better outcome then is sometimes the case.

          Hope that explains why it is not just about total weight.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Deadstick (535032)

      That doesn't pass the sniff test: every cargo ship has a built-in way of determining precisely how heavily it's loaded. It consists of a few ounces of paint, and it's called a Plimsoll line...

      • by DaHat (247651)

        These are rather large ships... do we assume they check the line all the way around?

        Think of it like Russian roulette... at first glance it seems like your odds are 1 in 6... but with a well-oiled & machined revolver & the mass of the loaded cartridge... the chances of the loaded chamber ending up at 10'o'clock (assuming clockwise rotation) are rather low (not that I suggest trying this)... but still achievable given really bad luck.

        Same goes for cargo containers... if the improbable happened and qu

    • One would think they'd weigh the container themselves and charge accordingly

      One would think the cranes used to load the containers would automatically weigh them, and report that total to the ship. The port could even charge for that service, once loaded the ship receives a layout map of the load with the individual weights and everything.

  • If they are airtight, maybe some could float? If you bump into one of those 7000 while you are out jet skiing, can you take it home as yours? Finders keepers? Or does the shipping company still own the containers?

  • Titanic? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    Together with her sister ships, MOL Comfort was the first container ship classified by Nippon Kaiji Kyokai to utilize ultra high-strength steel with an yield strength of 470 MPa in her hull structure.

    Stiff brittle ship snaps like golf club in heavy seas?

  • This was not an accident, It was Kaiju. I just saw this happen at the movies. Cover up!
  • After "Breaking in half", the apt part stays up for a week. The forward section stays afloat for over three weeks before it bursts into flames before sinking. Sounds like God wanted that ship sunk.

    • by neminem (561346)

      When you write it like that... all I can think is, "the first piece sank into the sea. The second piece burned down, fell over, *then* sank into the sea." (If only it had broken into four pieces, it would've worked better. Especially if the fourth piece had made it to shore.)

    • by 0123456 (636235) on Friday July 12, 2013 @07:04PM (#44265959)

      The forward section stays afloat for over three weeks before it bursts into flames before sinking.

      Was it carrying a 787 as cargo?

  • Great photos (Score:4, Informative)

    by dj245 (732906) on Friday July 12, 2013 @06:44PM (#44265755) Homepage
    I encourage everyone to click on the first link, there are bunch of great photos, all on one page (no slideshow).
    • by Ol Olsoc (1175323)

      I encourage everyone to click on the first link, there are bunch of great photos, all on one page (no slideshow).

      That's how these things reproduce you insensitive clods!

    • Re:Great photos (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Solandri (704621) on Friday July 12, 2013 @07:35PM (#44266233)
      For anyone unfamiliar with the terminology, hog is when a wave crest is at the center of the ship and both ends are in troughs. The ship's entire weight is supported by the midsection, with the two ends hanging as cantilever (unsupported) beams. It's one of the extremes marine engineers design ships to withstand (maximum moment), unsuccessfully in this case.

      The opposite is sag, where wave crests support the ends and a trough in the middle leaves the center unsupported.
  • by bogaboga (793279) on Friday July 12, 2013 @06:48PM (#44265789)

    Where was it built?

    I have an answer: Not the United States, for we outsourced serious commercial ship building, like most critical industries, to "third world" countries, whose sysyetms aren't as advanced or sophisticated as ours...

    Oh wait...wasn't there a fire on the recently overhauled Dreamliner? Wait a's also American built!

    • Nagasaki, Japan (Score:4, Informative)

      by LordZardoz (155141) on Friday July 12, 2013 @07:04PM (#44265957)

      According to Wikipedia:
      Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Nagasaki, Japan []

      So when did Japan become a 3rd world country that lacked advanced and sophisticated systems?


    • by Trepidity (597)

      It was built in Japan, which has dominated commercial shipbuilding over the past 40 years. It doesn't dominate quite as much anymore, but it still has a large share of the market. It's basically Japan and South Korea building most ships; China is spending massive amounts of money to break into the market, but is still under 10%.

  • Aiming at a stationary fishing boat near Sydney, Australia.

    • Aiming at a stationary fishing boat near Sydney, Australia.

      if that's true, i'd be more worried that North Korea's navy (ahem) apparently has torpedo technology that can hit targets in an entirely different oceanic region.

  • by nurb432 (527695) on Friday July 12, 2013 @06:56PM (#44265861) Homepage Journal

    There goes the package i was waiting on..

  • Why two? (Score:5, Funny)

    by sgt scrub (869860) <saintium@y a h o o .com> on Friday July 12, 2013 @06:57PM (#44265873)

    Why can't ships break in three or break in four even? I mean really. What ever happened to creative engineering?

  • by AEton (654737) on Friday July 12, 2013 @07:02PM (#44265923)

    I guess the Da Vinci virus wasn't playing around. Bummer.

  • by mveloso (325617) on Friday July 12, 2013 @07:07PM (#44265985)

    There is an incentive to declare your container overweight, because there is a weight limit for each container. Two containers is more expensive than one, obviously. So you are incentivized to pack your stuff as tightly as possible.

    However, there's a limit to how overweight your container can be. The container can hold around 28,000 kg. Its interior dimensions, however, are pretty fixed. How dense can you pack your goods? If you've done any shipping, you know that while you can pack stuff in, there's a point where you'll damage your goods. That's even more applicable for heavy goods, like industrial equipment.

    Do they actually use software to place containers? My limited exposure to a container yard says no. They load the boxes on there, and well, where it goes is where it goes.

    If it really was due to being overweight, how much overweight would each container have to be to cause the ship to snap in half?

    • by isj (453011)

      > Do they actually use software to place containers?

      Yes. It is called bay planning software. For larger ocean-crossing ships the process is largely automated, taking into account weight, container type (normal or reefer), dimensions, rules for dangerous goods, etc. For smaller ships (typically feeder ships) the software also has to take into account at which harbor each container will get off in order to minimize the number lifts (rearranging containers to get them out). The software also has to take int

  • by sjames (1099) on Friday July 12, 2013 @07:26PM (#44266173) Homepage

    Next time, untie the boat from the pier before you give it the gas.

  • by LoRdTAW (99712) on Friday July 12, 2013 @07:31PM (#44266205)

    Family friend is a retired truck driver who frequently picked up and delivered containers out of the new jersey ports. One story he told me was he had to pick up a 40 footer and was sent in a single axle tractor. They have scales and you weigh out when you leave the port. He scaled out at almost 90,000 pounds (40,823kg)! For a tractor trailer in the USA, that is 10,000 pounds (4,536kg) overweight. The kicker? The container was supposed to weigh only 40,000 pounds, nearly half of what it weighed. He said they were frequently overweight and it wasn't uncommon for containers to be thousands of pounds over what the paperwork listed.

  • by Animats (122034) on Friday July 12, 2013 @07:51PM (#44266345) Homepage

    Bromma [], which makes the "spreaders" which grab containers at 97 of the top 100 ports, now offers a solution. Their newer spreaders weigh the container as it's being lifted on to or off of the ship. Accuracy is within 1%. The container crane knows where the container is being placed on the ship, so weight and balance information for the whole ship is collected.

    It's being installed in Los Angeles now, London next, and can be retrofitted to existing Bromma spreaders. So there's a technical fix to this almost in place.

Technology is dominated by those who manage what they do not understand.