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Spate of accidents raises concern over giant ships

Monday, 20 February 2012 | 00:00
The huge industrial port of Ponta da Madeira in tropical northern Brazil is far removed geographically and culturally from the picturesque Tuscan island of Giglio. But the two share something important.
Both in the past two months have witnessed scenes that illustrate a growing risk facing large swathes of the maritime industry — of large-scale accidents involving members of a new breed of giant ships.
Images of the stranded, half-submerged wreck of the Costa Concordia, the 291-metre long cruise ship that hit rocks off Giglio on January 13 and capsized, have become familiar round the world and led to calls for tighter cruise ship regulation.
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The far less publicised Ponta da Madeira incident could have implications that are almost as far-reaching. In December, as the Vale Beijing, a 361-metre long ore carrier with a capacity of 404,389 deadweight tonnes, was being loaded for its maiden voyage, the vessel developed a crack in its hull, sending water pouring in. The vast ship — one of a new class of vessels bigger than any previous dry bulk commodity carrier — had to be towed away for repairs.
Both incidents have prompted disquiet about whether the maritime industry has grasped the full implications of introducing the new, far larger ships that have been recently delivered or are on order in nearly every industry segment.
Very large cruise ships, container ships and dry bulk carriers account for disproportionate numbers of the ships ordered during the shipping boom before the 2008 financial crisis, many of which are still being delivered. For cruise ships, the main questions are whether the more than 6,000 people on board the biggest can be evacuated fast enough.
In container shipping, the imminent arrival of a new breed of 400-metre long, 59-metre wide container ships carrying 18,000 20-foot equivalent units (Teus) of containers has raised concerns about a serious accident's environmental impact.
The Ponta da Madeira incident, meanwhile, also highlights the technical challenges of constructing dry bulk ships to handle stresses of a kind no previous ship has experienced.
The vast ships create new risks for operators, according to Phil Anderson, a maritime safety consultant, because a ship's risk level reflects the probability of its having an accident multiplied by any accident's consequences. "Probability doesn't change that much depending on the size of the ship," Anderson says. "The consequences certainly would do."
Source: Financial Times
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