When container giants run aground off Wangerooge

The "Majestic Maersk" has already sailed a little way into the mouth of the Weser.

When container giants run aground off Wangerooge

The "Majestic Maersk" has already sailed a little way into the mouth of the Weser. The fairway is narrow for the almost 60 meter wide and 400 meter long container ship with a draft of 16 meters. When sailing in fog like this, no landscape can be seen in front of the ship, the captain has to rely on the radar. A good four nautical miles (seven kilometers) off Bremerhaven, the ship's rudder suddenly failed.

The captain stops the machine and lets it turn backwards. He consciously takes the risk of damaging the machine. In addition, he uses the bow thruster for manoeuvring. Seeing no other choice, he lets the anchor chain run out.

The green shore comes dangerously close. On a sandbar, the ship lifts slightly to the side by five degrees. If it now hits across the fairway, it would be the worst case scenario, the worst accident that can be assumed for the shipping area.

Such a maneuver is part of everyday life at the Jade University in Elsfleth. Nowhere else in Germany are captains trained so comprehensively and realistically on ship simulators as here in the town not far from the North Sea coast. The simulator provides a 270-degree panoramic view of the ship's bridge windows. The computer animation is so deceptively real that you automatically hold on to a handle when the ship moves violently.

Whoever learns nautical science here bears great responsibility later at sea. Not only technical problems, but also storm and wind can lead to a serious accident. According to experts, what happened to the container ship "Ever Given" two years ago in the Suez Canal can also happen at any time on our doorstep at the entrances to the Weser and Elbe.

Then a 400-meter freighter could block shipping in the region for weeks and cut off ports such as Bremerhaven and Hamburg from the flow of goods. This would have enormous consequences for the supply of people and industry.

Around 500 cargo ships with a length of more than 350 meters are on the move worldwide. The order backlog at the shipyards is huge. "In the next two and a half years, up to 180 ships of this length will be added," says Professor Burkhard Lemper, Managing Director of the Institute for Shipping Economics and Logistics in Bremen. Then the shipowners will use 680 freighters of this size – mainly on routes from Asia to Europe.

But this will also increase the danger posed by these ships. Although they travel at low speed on the approach to the ports, it takes them several kilometers to stop. For example, the 400-meter-long "Mumbai Maersk" with around 18,300 containers on board could not be stopped in time in February 2022.

She ran aground on a sandbank off the North Sea island of Wangerooge. Several tugboats were then deployed and were able to pull her back into open water. Technical failures or human error are the triggers for such accidents.

People worry about the Weser and Elbe. "It can happen that a ship turns across and the river is blocked. We have to adapt and be prepared for this," says Hans-Jörg Nafzger, scientific director of the ship handling simulator at the Jade University.

If the ship is then washed away, it can break apart. The freighters have up to 18,000 tons of heavy oil on board, their fuel. In the event of an accident, ballast water and fuel would be pumped out. If the ship still does not come free, containers would have to be unloaded. But you need special cranes for that.

The unbroken trend towards size is a source of debate. "I can imagine that certain sizes of ship will be banned in some rivers one day," says instructor Nafzger. But only after an accident is there pressure to act. For Nafzger there is no question that the new container giants have economic and ecological advantages over smaller cargo ships because of their size. "But our society is also taking a risk," he says. Although the probability of a serious accident is currently rather low.

"However, since the fleet of large container ships will increase significantly in the next few years, the probability of this scenario occurring increases," says Nafzger. The scientist sees a need for action. All those involved – from the shipping companies and ship commands to the pilots, shipping administrations and ports to the CCME and the training centers – must be prepared to be able to deal with such a complex damage situation. For example, larger government ships for Bremerhaven and emergency tugs are needed.

Not only shipping experts, but also meteorologists are addressing the risks. "Container ships like this look like a skyscraper and they are relatively light for their size," says Birger Tinz, head of the regional climate office in Hamburg at the German Weather Service. The pressure of the wind from the side can be enormous and trigger a sideways movement. The fairways of the rivers are narrow, the curves tight, and the volume of traffic is high. In strong winds, a ship could drift to the river side. "If the wind direction is right, high wind speeds can affect the North Sea upriver," says Tinz.

The wind direction from the north-west is typical for the region where the Weser and Elbe meet. There are problems with stability and maneuverability from wind force six on the Beaufort scale. This is the lowest warning level. And this happens regularly: According to weather data recorded by weather service stations in the area of ​​the Elbe and Weser estuaries, wind peaks greater than nine Beaufort were measured on 26 days off Helgoland, 39 days off Büsum and 24 days off Norderney last year. This corresponds to the full storm strength with gusts of wind.

Insurance companies also warn. “People are the weakest link in the chain. 80 percent of ship accidents are due to human error," says Anastasios Leonburg, marine risk consultant at Allianz subsidiary Global Corporate and Specialty (AGCS). Should there be an accident in a river entrance, it could result in billions in damage. “It is very likely that we will see more accidents like this in the future. Unfortunately, they cannot be ruled out on rivers such as the Elbe or the Weser either.”

"Ships with 24,000 standard containers on board pose different risks than earlier ship sizes," says Leonburg. They are still manageable. But material must be stockpiled in order to be prepared for an accident. For example, provisions must be made for unloading. "In an emergency, cranes must be available to a suitable extent," says Leonburg.

In case of doubt, such an action could last several months. "In the USA there was a case in which it took a year," says Leonburg, who himself has a captain's license. In addition, the affected regions must have a sufficient number of smugglers. According to the German emergency towing concept, only the tug Nordic and the multi-purpose ships Neuwerk and Mellum are currently used as own ships in the North Sea.

The problem will only get worse in the coming years for another reason. In principle, the age of a ship alone is not a sufficient quality indicator. However, it is now considered a factor in the statistics. "In the case of large container ships, it must be assumed that technical defects will occur more frequently as the ship ages," says scientist Nafzger. This will also increase the probability of a serious accident in a German estuary in the future. According to the British shipping service Vessels Value, the average age of the 672 container ships currently owned by Germany is a good 14 years.

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