Lost Cargo! Bizarre World of Container Shipping


Across the vast expanses of oceans which  take up more than two thirds of the planet’s space, some 50,000 shipping vessels are bustling away, delivering cargos that make our world tick.

Dwarfing cruiseliners in size, these freight behemoths transport millions of containers for hundreds of thousands of miles a day – some ships carries 20,000 at a time – while 33 million of them are out there in the sea.

Hence, it isn’t surprising that not all ships make it safely to the harbour.

The Blue Planet II has revealed the statistics this week. Everyday, close to 4 shipping containers are lost to the waves. However, some other industry sources have estimated a higher figure – roughly 10,000 a year which amounts to 27 lost cargo ships per day.

What happens to them?

Most of them sink, although it takes a considerable time to hit the ocean floor. A standard cargo ship of 20-foot containers takes about 2 months to sink completely. A refrigerated container takes a longer time as it is buoyed by its insulation and hence remain adrift on the sea for a longer period of time.

But these are not the ones that garner interest.

In 2006, the Outer Banks of North Carolina encountered some unique problem. Tens and thousands of bags filled with Doritos washed up to its shore. A container split in  the Atlantic was the cause of this nuisance.

Much of the world is troubled by such unwanted spillage from cargo ships. Every day hundreds of LEGO pieces wash up on Perran Sands in Cornwall, and the nearby beaches, after a container ship carrying the toys was hit by a huge wave in 1997, sending tonnes of its cargo overboard.

The most famous incident pertaining to this problem is  the one discussed by David Attenborough at the weekend. It was the rubber ducks, better known as the Friendly Floatees.

After a containment of some 29,000 plastic yellow ducks, red beavers, blue turtles and green frogs were washed into the Pacific in 1992, the little toys began appearing on beaches around the world, from the west coast of America, to South America, Australia, and by 2007, Europe.

The famous Oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer used the travels of the ducks for mapping the global ocean currents. Although they were already working on a model, tracking 61,000 Nike trainers lost overboard in 1990 yet they utilised this study.

Not all are quite so cute, though.

The damage was much deeper than that was expected. While low-floating shipping containers creates hazardous obstacle for other vessels no one thought they would have a greater impact on the natural flora and fauna of the sea. Such containers carrying hazardous chemicals or pollutants, can greatly  impact the ocean’s ecosystem.

How do they get around?

A BBC experiment in 2008 tracking a single container for nine months showed the reach of commercial shipping. It started from  Southampton and went on to  Los Angeles, Yokohama, Brazil and Hong Kong, among other destinations. In its time it carried cargo including whisky, catfood, ink and monosodium glutamate.

What about shipping disasters?

Maersk, the world’s largest shipping company, says its largest annual loss of containers was 59. The Through Transport Club, which insures and risk manages top freight firms, reckons fewer than 2,000 containers are lost a year.

In 2011 the World Shipping Council explained that even with proper and secure loading, “a number of factors ranging from severe weather and rough seas to more catastrophic and rare events like ship grounding or collision can result in containers being lost overboard”. It said that during a “catastrophic loss” more than 50 containers can be lost in a single incident.

An estimated 350 containers are lost every year if larger catastrophic events are excluded from the list. The annual loss amounts to 675 containers when they are included.

The year 2002 saw a massive loss of 2862 cars and 77 units of cargo including tractors and other automobile parts when MV Tricolour was hit by another container. The ship bound for Southampton was moving through the English Channel with an overwhelming load of 3000BMWs, Volvos, Saabs and others.

2 days later, it was a struck by another vessel, carrying 70,000 tonnes of highly flammable gas oil. Later it was hit by  a third ship, a tug, which knocked off the Tricolour’s safety valve and triggering a massive oil spill.

What is the world’s largest container ship?

The OOCL Hong Kong, built recently this year by the Orient Overseas Container Line has a capacity  of holding 21,413 20-foot containers. At more than 1,300 feet long and nearly 200 wide, it’s the largest cargo ship in the world. It’s basically the size of 4 football pitches of boat.

The largest container ship in history was the Seawise Giant, which was in service for 30 years ferrying crude oil across the globe but finally sold for scrap in 2010 at a ship breaking yard in India. In her heyday, this ocean beast weighed more than 564,000 tonnes, measured 1,500ft in length and took a full five miles to slow to a halt, such was her bulk size.

Can I travel on one?


The world of cargo ships has opened its doors to the commoners thanks to the endeavour of some noble men.

Travel agent Cargo Ship Voyages specialises in laymen exploring the world on a cargo ship.

“Travelling on a cargo ship is a unique experience.  Whether you love the sea, are conscious of your carbon footprint, don’t like flying or simply prefer to sail in a relaxed atmosphere, away from the crowds, then travelling by cargo ship is the right choice for you,” reads its blurb.

However, there are some rules to be followed. Most cargo ships allow only six passengers, and has age restrictions. Passengers should remember that “these are hard-working cargo ships, not cruise ships”.

But it means weeks on the open sea, all around the world. Anyone fancing an 80-night trip from Singapore to Melbourne and back should definitely be on board!

37-year-old Dane Torbjørn C. Pedersen, known as Thor, took the long route in 2016 and went for a cargo ship cruise. He spent three years travelling the world on container ships, all through the Caribbean, Indian Ocean and the Americas.

Speaking to the Telegraph Travel, Pedersen says, ‘Luxuries are usually lacking, but the quality of accommodation will pleasantly surprise you.’

“I’ve slept on a kitchen floor of a very unclean boat, but the worst cabins have been comparable with mid-range hotel rooms. The bed have been downright luxurious. I was onboard a ship which was 10 years old but still the bed was good, the walls were clean, the shower and toilet worked – I couldn’t complain at all,” he said.

Where are the busiest shipping ports?

Mostly in Asia.

What are the world’s busiest shipping lanes?

Believe it or not, the Strait of Dover, the gap between the UK and France, is the world’s busiest international seaway, more than 4000 vessels ferry here everyday.

The Strait of Malacca, between Malaysia and the Indonesian island of Sumatra is another incredibly busy area of sea, its waters holds some 34 shipwrecks dating back to the 1880s.

An estimated  20% of the world’s petroleum passes through the Strait of Hormuz, which splits the Persian Gulf from Oman.

But as showcased by the aforementioned  the map, created by Kiln, the world is awash with tankers.

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Source: The Telegraph


  1. Seems as though the fourth paragraph intends to discuss shipping containers, NOT ships (“[T]he Blue Planet II has revealed the statistics this week. Everyday, close to 4 ships are lost to the waves. However, some other industry sources have estimated a higher figure – roughly 10,000 a year which amounts to 27 lost cargo ships per day”). See http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/news/blue-planet-2-ii-episode-4-bbc-plastic-ducks-turtle-wast-environmentalism-a8064341.html. The mistake makes the article very confusing to follow.


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