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Mega Ships, Brimming With Containers, Challenge Narrow Waterways

NOEL KING, HOST:

The head of the Suez Canal Authority says that the estimated losses and damages from the Ever Given blocking the waterway could run up to a billion dollars. This might seem like a freak event, but there are now 100 similar giant container ships around the world, and even bigger ones are being built now in Asia. These ships move a lot of stuff, but sometimes what's on board doesn't even survive the journey. Here's NPR's Jackie Northam.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: In the 2013 survival movie "All Is Lost," Robert Redford is forced to battle the elements when a massive shipping container rams into the side of his yacht. He looks over the side and sees running shoes floating out of a container and water flooding into his boat.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ALL IS LOST")

ROBERT REDFORD: (As Our Man) This is the Virginia Jean with an SOS call, over.

NORTHAM: The premise of the movie is not that far-fetched.

ANDREW KINSEY: We have seen some, for a better term, spectacular losses of cargo with vessels losing a lot of containers.

NORTHAM: Captain Andrew Kinsey is a senior marine risk consultant for Allianz, a global financial services firm. He says one of the more high-profile cases was in November, when a Japanese-flagged vessel, the ONE Apus, lost more than 1,800 containers in the waters around Hawaii during high winds. He says many more on board were also destroyed.

KINSEY: And the ones that didn't go over the side, the stow on board actually collapsed, tumbled like a house of cards. There's some rather spectacular drone footage of the vessel when it pulled into Kobe.

NORTHAM: The ONE Apus is now back at sea.

Alan Murphy is the chief executive at Sea-Intelligence, a container shipping research and advisory firm in Copenhagen. He says part of the problem is there are just so many containers on ships nowadays as demands for consumer products - TVs, clothing, washing machines - skyrocketed during the pandemic.

ALAN MURPHY: In the past, these mega vessels have never really tried to be loaded as full as they are now. And obviously, the more full a vessel is, the greater the risk of an incident happening. If you're only half full and you can stow every container below deck, you're not dropping anybody - any container in the ocean.

NORTHAM: In fact, one of the reasons the Ever Given was so hard to move out of the Suez Canal is because it was packed with 20,000 containers. Murphy says when he started in the industry 20 years ago, vessels could hold about 6,000 containers.

MURPHY: I remember people talking about the absolute madness. We've gone mad. You know, why on earth are we building these behemoths? Will we ever be able to fill them?

NORTHAM: Container ships are now about four times that size and still growing. Mike Schuler of gcaptain.com, a maritime industry news site, says bigger ships can cause bigger problems. For example, if they hit a swell in bad weather, container ships can be subject to something called parametric rolling.

MIKE SCHULER: It's an intense rolling. I mean, I've seen videos of ships rolling up to 40 degrees, if not more. And the top of the container stacks on these ships, it's something like 150 feet to 200 feet in the air. So you have all these forces with the ship rolling that just, in some cases, knock the cargo overboard.

NORTHAM: Carrying more containers means bigger and wider ships - like the 1,300-foot Ever Given - making them more challenging to sail through narrow waterways like the Suez Canal and harder to move when they get stuck.

Jackie Northam, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.