MSC Napoli - a drama that wasn't allowed to become a crisis

16 February 2007

The saga of the MSC Napoli, the 53,409 gross tons container ship that started taking in water in a January storm and now lies, deliberately beached, in Lyme Bay in Devon, has provoked a stream of unsettling images, emotionally-charged headlines and thousands of column inches of reporting and comment. What it hasn't done, says George Fawcett of leading maritime insurance provider TT Club, is add much to the understanding of the man in the street about the workings of the container shipping industry or of his near-complete dependence on it.

As usually seems to be the case in matters maritime, the media have missed a great opportunity to educate the public.

Not so long ago the United Kingdom had a proud maritime tradition as a builder and owner of ships and many, if not most, families would have had connections with the sea through family members or friends in maritime industries. Perversely, in an age where we now import more goods than ever to support our desires and needs, we have largely lost that connection and are being swept along on an irrational tide of prejudice against the shipping industry.

Let us start by examining some of the myths and facts surrounding the MSC Napoli incident.

"Disaster at sea" proclaimed 2.5cm-high headlines in even such a respectable broadsheet as The Sunday Times.


I would rather point out and take comfort from the fact that all those agencies whose job and responsibility it is to take control of and mitigate fast-unfolding events taking place in elemental conditions have done just that. They have actually averted the human, environmental and economic consequences of casualties such as Prestige, Erika, Castor and other infamous names.

First up for praise, the professionalism and seamanship of Captain Valentin Velev and his multinational crew aboard MSC Napoli, who calmly and correctly assessed the condition of their stricken vessel after vertical cracks on either side of the hull permitted an ingress of sea water into the engine room. After alerting the rescue authorities, captain and crew successfully overcame one of a seaman's worst challenges, safely boarding and launching their lifeboat into the maelstrom.

Many crewmen have been injured or even killed in lifeboat launch rehearsals in the so-called safety of a calm dock. The desperation in the situation that propelled this crew to leave a large, if badly disabled, cargo ship in what has been described as the worst storm to hit Britain in almost a decade, for the uncertainties of survival in a ten-metre lifeboat, is hard for shore folk to imagine.

Ultimately, of course, their survival was secured by the courage and capability of the crewmen of the Royal Navy and French rescue helicopters - once again the heroes of the hour. Working at the limits of weather and aircraft endurance, plucking 26 souls without mishap from a small lifeboat being tossed by 40ft waves is an achievement that should never be taken for granted.

Although the stricken MSC Napoli was in the French search and rescue zone, under the terms of the Anglo-French Joint Maritime Contingency Plan the UK's Secretary of State's Representative for Maritime Salvage and Intervention (SOSREP) and the French maritime authorities made their assessments together of the options open to them.

"The conclusion arising out of these assessments," reported the UK's Maritime and Coastguard Agency, or MCA, "was that the least environmentally risky option was to tow the vessel to a place of refuge in UK waters. The south coast of England provided better options for a place of refuge than the French coast, where there were no suitable places of refuge within reasonable distance."

Not long after, while under tow, SOSREP Captain [??] Robin Middleton was forced to confront another tough decision. With the ship's stern now starting to settle and at risk of sinking, he decided to beach the vessel to minimise the amount of pollution.

Captain Middleton's decisive action drew howls of protest from sections of the environmental lobby. "We told them: nowhere in Lyme Bay, it's too important," one activist told The Sunday Times. Completely unsubstantiated reports of up to 200 tons of leaked fuel, and the inevitable pictures of seabirds started to circulate. Despite the accurate and impartial information being disseminated by the admirably open MCA news machinery, including the admission of about sixty to one hundred tons of leaked fuel, some journalists seemed to apply their own versions of what they wanted to hear.

Fortunately, wiser and more knowledgeable counsels appreciate the unique position of Britain's SOSREP. The International Chamber of Shipping declared its view that "the damage to the environment would certainly have been far greater if the decisive action of the UK authorities in beaching the ship, and the subsequent action to mitigate the pollution, had not been taken. It is also important to remember that there has been no loss of seafarers' lives."

It unequivocally supports SOSREP's independent authority, noting that "such decisions are made in difficult circumstances and, while mitigating what would be even more serious situations, they may introduce, to say the least, some obvious political sensitivities."

Even the European Commission agrees, remarking in a statement that it "welcomes the effectiveness of the action taken by the UK authorities to assist the MSC Napoli, which was based on independent decisions taken following an objective analysis of the situation, making it possible to avoid a major disaster."

Perhaps the most potent images so far to emerge from the MSC Napoli incident involve the removal of cargo washed ashore in or from some of the 103 cargo containers lost from the ship when she was beached, of which 56 have been positively identified on the shore and 47 are unaccounted for and are presumed sunk. Let us keep that in proportion as well - MSC Napoli was carrying 2,318 containers in total so the 47 unaccounted for represents a loss ratio of only two per cent.

"Thieves," "looters", "police incompetence" alleged the press frenzy, conveniently ignoring the fact that much of what took place could be construed at the time as voluntary salvage under the Merchant Shipping Act 1995 and that the act of taking cargo washed ashore is not, in itself, illegal.

Now that the cargo owners have specifically said that they have appointed salvors and do not want anyone else taking items from the beach, the scavengers have drifted away. More criminally-minded opportunists who succumb to the allure of eBay rather than reporting their finds can doubtless look forward to a communication from HM Revenue and Customs.

So does our disconnect with the maritime world matter? I certainly think it matters and that the media should take a long hard look at themselves for their attitude towards an industry that supplies the population with its means of survival, and quite a bit else besides.

The vast majority of what we eat, what we wear, what we put in our homes, not to mention what we drive and use to get to work, arrives on this island by sea. Over 90% of the world's trade and 98% of our imports travel by ship.

The world's container lines, of which MSC is the second largest in terms of vessel capacity, have done an unprecedented job in establishing a worldwide transport system that last year enabled over 110 million TEU (twenty-foot equivalent units, an industry measure of capacity) to travel quickly, reliably, economically and, overwhelmingly, safely across the oceans and seas. They have also expanded capacity sufficiently to accommodate annual growth rates in world production in excess of 10% in each of the last five years.

Without the investments by shipowners in thousands of container ships, let alone the associated millions of freight containers, the container terminals and ancillary handling equipment, there could have been no globalisation of our economies, no complex but efficient supply chains and none of the benefits of cheaper and cheaper goods.

So that's the container shipping industry - no pariah skulking along the sea lanes of the world but a modern, vibrant success story that plays a crucial part in all our lives and has even learned how best to avoid a drama becoming a crisis.

George Fawcett, Equipment Claims Director

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TT Club