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OPINION: Container stow collapses – a South African perspective
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OPINION: Container stow collapses – a South African perspective

Implications of container collapses

While elements of the shipping market are now showing signs of recovery, container stow collapses and the loss of containers overboard continue to plague the containerised shipping sector. Michael Asherson and Michael Tatham of Bowmans take a look at the financial, operational and environmental consequences of these incidents.


According to a World Shipping Council (WSC) survey undertaken in 2020, an estimated average of 1,382 containers were lost at sea annually during the period 2008 to 2019, from approximately 6,000 container vessels.

Many such incidents occur during periods of heavy weather which result in damage to container lashings and twist locks, causing container stacks to collapse.

Such incidents are not uncommon off the South African coast. Indeed, South Africa’s east coast is notorious for the annual heavy winter swell.

Following a collapsed stow, the vessel involved will frequently be required to seek refuge at the nearest port in order to survey the damage, assess the number of containers lost overboard; effect any necessary repairs and process any containers that may need to be discharged or transshipped.

For the vessel to enter her chosen port of refuge, the owners would need to approach the relevant port authority as well as the South African Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA) to request the necessary permission.

Port of refuge

Allowing the stricken vessel to enter the port can cause the wider operations of the port to be placed at risk. As such, operational plans (approved by SAMSA and the port authority), and in some cases, security and indemnities may be required prior to the vessel being given access.

The vessel’s P&I insurers will likely be involved given the potential cargo and pollution liabilities. It is also possible that the local authorities may impose fines on the vessel, and arrangements may need to be made for clean-up operations. The carriers may also need to provide security to cargo interests in relation to potential cargo claims.
Once the vessel is in port, the South African lawyers and P&I representatives will attend to the facilitation of the casualty investigation, monitor access to the vessel, appoint experts, preserve evidence and oversee any repairs or remedial cargo operations. Crew statements may also need to be taken.

Casualty investigations can give rise to formal applications to the South African High Court by cargo interests or charterers for preservation of critical evidence and access to the vessel. Usually, the parties will agree to a protocol governing these aspects in an attempt to avoid the need for formal litigation.

The owners, charterers and their insurers will need to make the necessary arrangements for the damaged containers to be discharged, de-stuffed, inspected, repaired and back loaded either onto the same vessel or onto another vessel for transshipment. The cargo to be processed or disposed of may include potentially hazardous cargo requiring specialised treatment.

Legally speaking

From a legal perspective, the South African Carriage of Goods by Sea Act 1 of 1986 (COGSA) enacts the Hague-Visby Rules. In other words, the heavy weather defence is recognised under South African law and may provide the carrier with a defence, depending upon the terms of the contracts of carriage and the circumstances of the incident.
Bowmans has extensive experience in facilitating casualty investigations in South African ports as well as in other African jurisdictions.

Our team of shipping lawyers, spanning both our Cape Town and Durban offices, collectively, have a thorough understanding of the requirements that are likely to be imposed by the South African authorities following such an incident.
In the event of such an incident occurring off the coast of South Africa, dedicated maritime lawyers are able to assist with the following:

  • Crew statements;
  • Negotiation and provision of security both in respect of potential cargo claims as well as any fines imposed by the South African authorities;
  • Liaising with the South African authorities in relation to access to the port, remedial cargo operations and any clean-up requirements;
  • Appointing and monitoring local surveyors and experts for surveys of the containers, cargo and the vessel;
  • Attending to urgent applications to the High Court in relation to the preservation of evidence and access to the vessel;
  • Negotiating protocols governing the preservation of evidence and access to the crew; and 
  • Handling any cargo claims or other formal litigation flowing from the incident in South Africa. 
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