Are conventional bulk carriers suitable to carry containers? This question has been raised by several industry bodies in recent weeks and an article in Gard looks at the technical and legal implications of such conversions.
The article looks at some technical and legal aspects of this trade and more importantly, share some of the issues that owners and their crew are likely to face.
The obligation of seaworthiness
A vessel owner is obliged to provide a seaworthy ship to carry goods by sea. Contracts of carriage include both bills of lading and charterparties. Under common law, the seaworthiness obligation is absolute and non-delegable. Broadly speaking, seaworthiness is the fitness of the vessel to
- encounter the ordinary perils contemplated for the voyage, and
- carry her intended cargo.
As an example, the NYPE charterparty requirement is for the vessel to be “tight, staunch, strong and in every way fitted for the service”. The seaworthiness obligation also extends to the competence of the crew on board the vessel.
Most bills of lading and charterparties incorporate a paramount clause such as the Hague/Hague-Visby Rules which reduces the standard of seaworthiness to one of due diligence. For example, Article 3.1 of the Hague/Hague-Visby Rules provides:
“The carrier shall be bound before and at the beginning of the voyage to exercise due diligence to make the ship seaworthy, properly man, equip, and supply the ship, make the holds, refrigerating and cool chambers, and all other parts of the ship in which goods are carried, fit and safe for their reception, carriage and preservation.”
This means that a shipowner must have taken all reasonable precautions to ensure that the vessel is properly manned, equipped, and suitable for the cargo service. Different jurisdictions may also implement different carriage of good by sea (COGSA) laws mandatorily by statute, which may impose a different standard of seaworthiness.
If a vessel which has all the necessary class certificates nevertheless has an incident caused by items verified by class, the liability would remain with the shipowner if the vessel is found to be unseaworthy following an investigation.
Given the claims values involved where cargo or containers are damaged, allegations of unseaworthiness inevitably arise after an incident irrespective of class approvals. Below, we identify and discuss some of the technical issues shipowners should consider to avoid allegations of unseaworthiness of a bulk vessel to carry containers and defend claims should they arise.
Can an owner refuse to carry containers on board?
Charterparties for bulk vessels almost always contain trading exclusions and cargo exclusions. Not surprisingly, owners of dry bulk vessels would not have contemplated the carriage of containers when entering into medium- or long-term time charterparties. Can owners refuse an order to load containers on board a bulk vessel where the charterparty does not expressly exclude them?
The position is uncertain. However, owners can look to the vessel description clause in the charterparty, which would usually indicate the contemplated trade.
For example: “Vessel is a bulk carrier, fully fitted to carry grains and in a thoroughly efficient state to trade dry bulk cargoes” indicates that the vessel has been chartered to carry dry bulk cargoes, including grain in particular. It remains to be seen whether it might be arguable that this excludes carriage of containers (which will in any event depend on the terms of the particular charterparty) and it will be interesting to see whether this is raised in the future.
As discussed below, a conventional dry bulk vessel will need modifications to her design, approvals/permissions, and additional documentation before carriage of containers can be contemplated. In short therefore, a conventional bulk vessel may not be considered cargo worthy or seaworthy as-is, and owners may be able to reject the carriage of containers under a standard dry bulk charterparty.
Where a wide range of trades not specifically including reference to containerised cargo is covered by the charter, the owners would probably not be obliged to have fittings for containers. Of course, that is not the same as an ability to refuse to carry containers, but it does put some of the expense of doing so onto the charterer unless the ship has been expressly chartered for the purpose of carrying containers.
The argument that charterers would be obliged to provide and pay for (and remove, at their cost at the end of the charter period) any modifications required to allow carriage of containers can be further strengthened by the charterparty terms.
Are bulk carriers suitable to carry containers?
Our first response to the question of the carriage of containers on bulk vessels is that conventional bulk carriers are not designed to carry containers in the holds. If a bulk operator is required to carry containers, the vessel should have the necessary fittings, documentation, approvals, and a trained crew to be able to safely facilitate the trade.
To understand the processes involved in converting bulk carriers for the carriage of containers on board, some important points are to be considered.
Securing arrangement and cargo spaces: The vessel securing arrangement is the starting point to decide whether the vessel is suitable for conversion. In most cases, a typical log carrier is the most suitable to carry containers given the existing securing arrangement and associated strength of the tank top and hatch covers.
According to some class societies, folding type hatch covers are much better than side rolling hatch covers to facilitate large enough openings into the cargo spaces during loading and discharging operations. If the vessel does not have a sufficient securing arrangement, this will need to be fabricated in the presence of expert supervision and all such modifications would require the administration’s approval.
Structural strength: In addition to the securing arrangements inside and outside the cargo holds, the structural strength of the tank top as well as the hatch covers will also need to be verified to ensure that the collective weight of the stack does not exceed the maximum load/permissible point load (MT/m2) on the tank top and the hatch covers.
This verification would need expert supervision and guidance to the master on the use of load spreaders and other dunnage to distribute the weight and safely optimise the stack weight distribution. All calculations related to the adequacy of the structural strength would depend on accuracy of the declared weights (VGM) of the containers.
Cargo securing manual: The cargo securing manual (CSM) for most bulk carriers may not incorporate the carriage of containers on board the vessel. This is an important aspect of vessel suitability as the CSM provides critical information on the strength of the lashings necessary for securing containers under specific GM (metacentric height) criteria.
A vessel’s suitability for the carriage of containers will require amendments to the CSM by incorporating lashing arrangements for the loaded containers under specific loaded condition(s) with ballast on board. This is likely to generate acceleration forces that may limit stack height of the containers and the CSM will provide some guidance on the securing arrangements accounting for the GM criteria.
Loading software: The loading software, commonly known as the “Loadicator” is a software version of the loading manual. The Loadicator on a conventional bulk vessel may not be designed to calculate the stability with containers as cargo and the cargo weight distribution may not be as homogenous as that of bulk cargoes.
The other limitation of a standard Loadicator on bulk carriers is that it does not incorporate the requirements of the cargo securing manual which would invariably affect the vessel’s ability to calculate stability and lashing requirements for the containers.
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