Expert Risk Articles

Salvage challenges for “mega ships”

As “mega ships” get bigger and their capacities challenge imaginable limits, safety issues abound, as evidenced by recent groundings. Add the fact that few ports and harbors can handle such vessels, and that there are additional concerns with ballasting, stability, structural integrity, and crew training, and the possibilities of a billion dollar loss aren’t out of the question.

Mega ships: Increased capacity, increased risk

The thirst for ever-larger containerships continued through 2015 with Mediterranean Shipping Company’s 19,224 teu “mega ships” arriving on the market. At 395m long, 59m wide and 30m in depth, the 193,000gt MSC Oscar made headlines around the world as it assumed the title of the world’s largest container ship. This colossal vessel has a deck area equivalent to four football fields laid end-to-end. If it was stood upright out of the water at 395m it would be taller than the Empire State Building (381m).

As well as demonstrating the remarkable innovation and growth of a maritime industry, which has seen cargo carrying capacity increase by over 70% over the past decade, the arrival of such “mega ships” also brings concerns about increasing risk, safety issues and salvage difficulties.

In February 2016 another 19,000 teu mega ship, the China Shipping Container Lines (CSCL) vessel, the Indian Ocean made headlines for different reasons when it was grounded and stuck in the river Elbe in Germany for five days, eventually being pulled free by a fleet of 12 tugs. Later that month, the 13,892 teu APL Vanda was grounded on Bramble Bank in the UK, scene of the grounding of the Höegh Osaka a year earlier.

Salvage friendly vessels

While there is still a dearth of suitable places of refuge and only a limited number of ports able to handle these mega ships, there is one area where the industry is taking steps to reduce the safety risks large ships present. A “salvage friendly” ship concept made inroads in 2015 with the take up of fast oil recovery systems to speed up the removal of oil and hazardous liquids from a casualty, and attempts by shipyards to design casualty-ready ships.



A 19,000+ teu mega ship was grounded and stuck in the river Elbe in Germany during February 2016 for five days. Source: Shutterstock


“These designs will need to take into account preparedness and methods to deploy and mobilize salvage equipment in conjunction with existing vessel designs,” says Captain Jarek Klimczak, Senior Risk Consultant at AGCS. “Naval architects will be challenged with limited options for ballasting, maintaining or recovering stability, all the while ensuring structural integrity. All casualties requiring the assistance of salvors are difficult as each one presents its own unique set of circumstances. Because of their magnitude, salvage of an ultra large ship unites those challenges.”

However, insurers raise concerns that mergers and acquisitions in the salvage business have reduced easy access to the specialist salvors required for recovery work on this scale. As a highly intensive capital business, salvors need to have a ready fleet of large, powerful tugs and access to expensive specialist equipment. That hardware also needs to be geographically spread to enable fast response, regardless of where a casualty occurs. However, commercial realities and the sporadic nature of this type of work means that this is increasingly not possible.

“We will face a situation like the Costa Concordia again and the rule book will have to be re-written,” warns Captain Andrew Kinsey,  Senior Marine Risk Consultant at AGCS. “Salvage today is a very costly endeavor; you don’t have the traditional salvage equipment that was about in the 1970s and 1980s. Now you are dealing with very expensive equipment.”

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What’s in a teu?

The world’s largest container ship (19,000+ teu) has the capacity to hold 1.15 million washing machines. Container ship capacity is measured in 20-foot equivalent units (teu). Typical loads are a mix of 20-foot and 40-foot containers. The world’s largest container ship – the 19,000+ teu MSC Oscar has the capacity to hold 1.15 million washing machines.