Containers lost at sea


Published: 4 November 2020

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Prevention intensifies while loss decreases

A situation taken seriously by the container industry

With more than 5,000 container vessels in operation and about 789 million TEUs being handled in ports worldwide, the container trade, an extraordinary globalization tool, accounts for nearly 18% of the total seaborne trade. On paper, having more containers crossing the oceans means a higher risk of incidents. But is it that simple?

The World Shipping Council (WSC) has released their 2020 update and on average 1,382 containers are lost at sea every year, but we can clearly see a downward trend and in the 2017-2019 period 779 containers were lost every year.

Catastrophic events such as sinking or grounding of vessels account for half of the containers lost, but still the container trade community's ambition is to fight the multiple causes for containers falling overboard. Semi-submerged containers are a threat to safety of crew and vessels and are also a danger to marine life.

Misdeclaration of weight, improper packing of cargo, improper stowage as per ship's Cargo Securing Manual (CSM), twist locks issues or maintenance of the containers are important risk factors.

Being aware of this multifaced threat, the container trade industry itself, in cooperation with government bodies and shipper associations, has continuously worked on addressing the problem:

  • Several initiatives at an international level aim at improving the international standards under SOLAS, ISO and the CTU Code and have already reshaped the risks and contributed to lowering the risk.
  • In order to fight misdeclaration of cargo, changes to SOLAS came into effect on 1 July 2016 requiring verification of container weights (VGM) before containers can be loaded onboard.
  • As per an IMO proposal more loss prevention work is to be done also on the shipowner's side as an alignment of the Safe Container Convention (CSC) and ISO 1496-1 container stacking strength requirements is needed.

Learning from experience

Inspection of the securing equipment onboard: In a recent case, a vessel lost nearly 50 containers and the investigations revealed that lashing arrangements were inadequate and that the securing points for containers were heavily corroded.


  • Frequently inspect the lashing equipment and sockets.
  • Reject damaged containers and observe stevedore's routines to make sure that securing equipment is handled well and returned to the vessel.
  • Avoid using a mix of manual and semi-automatic twist locks and avoid storing left and right-hand twist locks together.

Rolling, parametric forces and stowage planning are key elements in loss prevention. In July 2018 a vessel lost 81 containers overboard in very rough seas, and on 1 January 2019 a vessel lost 342 containers. In both cases the forces generated during sudden, heavy rolling placed excessive stress on the containers. This resulted in structural failure of containers and components of the lashing system.


  • Training on the hydrodynamic phenomena due to high-beam seas.
  • Encourage vessels to have instruments providing insight into roll motions and accelerations; and the technical possibilities for detecting container loss.
  • Frequently review stowage methods and passage planning.
  • Daily examination of the lashing bars tensions and tightness of turnbuckles.

Improving the whole industry practice by preventing, reporting and tracking container losses


  • Provide better information to the shippers on the consequences of misdeclaration of goods, especially dangerous goods.
  • Promotion of the CTU code and improvement of its content regarding safe packing of containers.
  • Constant review and maintenance of the equipment including corn castings, lashing materials and twist locks.
  • Constant operational dialogue between owners and charterers on vessel capacity and stow plans.
  • Weather tracking and passage planning reviews.


  • The WSC and European Union have co-sponsored a proposal to the Maritime Safety Committee on mandatory reporting of containers lost at sea. In addition, an open dialogue on criteria with Carriage of Cargoes and Containers (CCC) 6 has led to a consensus on the need for an amendment of the IMO guidelines for inspection programs for cargo transport units, including containers.


  • Revision of the IMO's guidelines for the inspection programs for cargo transport units.
  • Explore whether using satellite could improve detection of containers overboard.