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Attention, containers ahead!

A collision with a sea container is any sailor’s nightmare. Holger Flindt from Pantaenius clarifies the matter - the damage expert and enthusiastic sailor used to sail at sea and knows the risks posed by floating containers.

On 2nd January 2019 at night, the storm low “Zeetje” swept across northern Europe and caused the water levels in the North Sea and Baltic to skyrocket. That is nothing out of the ordinary at that time of year. However, on the Frisian islands, the inhabitants found very unusual flotsam following the night of the storm: refrigerators, slippers, chairs and carnival costumes were all washed up. In addition, there were whole sea containers demolished by the force of the North Sea.

The flotsam and jetsam came from onboard "Zoe". The 396-metre-long super freighter from Geneva-based shipping company MSC was on its way from Sines in Portugal to Bremerhaven overnight, when the storm and waves caused the loaded containers to come loose. Around 280 of them fell into the North Sea.

Since then, Special Forces used sonar to locate 220 of the steel boxes on the seabed at a depth of 20 to 30 metres. However, there is still no trace of a further 20 to 27 containers. Fishermen in Lower Saxony fear for their own safety: if the bottom of their net gets caught on a container, they could capsize. Dirk Sander, Chairman of the Association of German Cutter and Coastal Fishermen, spoke to NDR 1 Niedersachsen of "significant concern.”

So, are sailors worried: is it very risky to journey through the area between Borkum and Terschelling? Holger Flindt of yacht insurance expert Pantaenius answers with a clear "No." The head of the claims department knows what he is talking about. He has been at sea himself and experienced storms and waves ten metres high. "Unfortunately, containers can get lost in storms - but the proportion is small compared to the total worldwide volume of 130 million containers. A survey by the World Shipping Council (WSC), across approximately 90 percent of all container shipping companies worldwide, revealed an average loss of around 1600 containers for the years 2014, 2015 and 2016.”

What is the risk of colliding with one of these containers? “Rather low,” says Holger Flindt. Because steel structures usually sink to the seabed. How quickly this happens depends on many factors when compared to a sinking ship whose bow would still project out of the water. According to the insurance expert, it is extremely rare for containers to drift just under the surface of the water, as shown in the film ‘All is Lost’, for example.

Holger Flindt advises sailors planning a trip to the Frisian islands to take the usual precautions. "In our opinion, the "Zoe" incident does not increase the risk of damage. Those who observe the rules of seamanship, keep a lookout and navigate conscientiously should reach their destination safely.”


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