What’s Wrong With All the Ships? (2023)

Do recent boat disasters actually point to a global shipping industry in distress?

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What’s Wrong With All the Ships? (1)

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Are the boats okay?

They seem to be in a tough stretch. A ship called the Felicity Ace is currently afire and adrift in the Atlantic Ocean, off the Azores, with a reported 4,000 cars on board, including Porsches, Bentleys, and Audis. The crew abandoned the vessel, en route to the United States, last week, and firefighters are now trying to control the blaze.

In January, a different container ship, the Madrid Bridge, limped into the port of Charleston, South Carolina, after losing about 60 containers at sea. Pictures of the vessel showed one row of the metal boxes collapsed and teetering over the gunwale. Among the cargo lost: highly anticipated print runs of cookbooks from Mason Hereford and Melissa Clark.

A week later, an oil-storage vessel exploded off the coast of Nigeria. Within days, a Mauritian oil tanker had run aground off Reunión in the Indian Ocean. In Peru, workers are still cleaning up a spill that, according to some accounts, occurred when a tanker was rocked by tsunami waves. Experts are nervously watching another tanker off the coast of Yemen, which is slowly disintegrating in the midst of a war and an existing humanitarian crisis.

These cases come just months after the spectacle of the Ever Given, a massive container ship that wedged itself into the banks of the Suez Canal, halted shipping for days, and enthralled a world bored to tears with the pandemic. These incidents are transfixing—a little awesome, in the old-fashioned sense, and a little hilarious, in a very contemporary internet-ironic one—but is the global shipping industry in some sort of collapse?

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The short answer is no. “It’s just that people have noticed,” John Konrad, the CEO of the shipping site gCaptain, told me. Over the past few years, about 50 major ships have been lost annually. (Comprehensive figures from 2021 are not available yet, but Konrad said he doesn’t see evidence of any big jump last year.) Most of the time, the public has no reason to pay attention to these sinkings and collisions. But supply-chain crunches caused by the pandemic have made the shipping system more visible than it has been for decades, spotlighting cases like the Felicity Ace and Madrid Bridge. Meanwhile, more volatile weather caused by climate change and ever-larger container ships mean the risk of losses may be rising.

Until recently, major nautical disasters could seem like a relic of the past, like train wrecks or dirigible crashes. Every year, the German insurance giant Allianz issues a report on shipping and safety, and it captures steady improvement. As recently as 2000, more than 200 big ships were lost. (Don’t call them “boats” unless you’re ready to be corrected by cranky old salts.) By the early 2010s, that number had dropped to about 100 a year. In 2021, just 49 were lost, and 2020 saw only 48 losses. Allianz attributes this to “the positive effect of an increased focus on safety measures over time, such as regulation, improved ship design and technology, and risk management advances.”

Even so, that’s a startling rate of one major ship lost almost every week. Most of them don’t make the news. Though classified as “major,” most of these ships are far smaller than the Ever Given or the Felicity Ace. Their crews also largely comprise seafarers from countries like the Philippines or India, the ships sink far away (the biggest portion of losses is around the South China Sea), and their cargo isn’t something that Americans consumers miss. But when ships laden with things Americans care about, such as cars and cookbooks, start hitting choppy seas, they tune in.

In 2015, the cargo ship El Faro sank in the Atlantic Ocean with American sailors on board—a rare loss from the shrinking U.S.-flagged fleet. The Ever Given snarled Suez Canal traffic headed to Europe, affecting Western consumers and becoming a somewhat blunt metaphor for supply-chain disruptions affecting all kinds of goods. The Felicity Ace was bound for Rhode Island when it caught fire, carrying luxury cars for the U.S. market. One Porsche on board was being shipped to the editor of a popular car-review site.

Even under these circumstances, a major disaster doesn’t always make much national news. In September 2019, a car carrier called the Golden Ray, roughly the same size as the Felicity Ace, capsized in St. Simons Sound off Georgia. No cargo ship so large had sunk in U.S. coastal waters since the Exxon Valdez, and the process of breaking up the ship—one of the most expensive salvage efforts in history—concluded only in October. Outside of the trade and regional press, however, the story barely made a splash.

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The pandemic could be a factor in some of these recent accidents. Every link in the supply chain, from truckers to ports to shipboard crews, is subject to strain and fatigue. When the freighter Wakashio grounded off Mauritius in 2020, two crew members had been on board for more than a year, prevented from normal rotations onto shore and trips home because of quarantine rules.

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But two problems do seem to be growing: shipboard fires and containers going overboard, like the ones that sent the cookbooks to a watery grave. The reasons have nothing to do with the pandemic. First, the size of vessels continues to grow, though the crews in charge of wrangling them stay the same size. The Ever Given was one of the largest ships in the world when it launched, at 20,000 20-foot equivalent units (TEUs), a benchmark for container ships. One factor in its grounding was that the huge wall of boxes on board effectively acted as a sail, allowing the wind to drive the ship into the canal’s bank. But ships as large as 24,000 TEUs will soon join the fleet.

“Vessel size has a direct correlation to the potential size of loss,” Allianz notes. “Car transporters/RoRo and large container vessels are at higher risk of fire with the potential for greater consequences should one break out.”

Second, ships are also at greater risk of losing containers, or even sinking, when they hit unexpected storms. Climate change means that rather than being confined to specific seasons, storms can hit at any time. “The weather is getting more unpredictable, and these ships are getting bigger, so they’re stacking higher,” Konrad said. “When the ships get hit in a wave, you get a bigger lever that’s pulling the containers over.” (In a bitter environmental irony, the Felicity Ace fire has kept burning because of lithium-ion batteries on electric cars.) In other words, the recent rash of high-profile shipping snafus may be only a factor of greater attention—but a warming planet means a mounting number of disasters might be just over the horizon.


How long will the shipping crisis last? ›

The pandemic has upended global supply chains in a way that is unprecedented in recent history. Owing to a combination of port congestion, slow circulatory movement, and high shipping rates, it's estimated that supply chains will remain disrupted well into 2022.

What was the worst ship in history? ›

RMS Titanic – A British ocean liner and, at the time, the world's largest ship. On 14 April, on her maiden voyage, she struck an iceberg, buckling part of her hull and causing her to sink in the early hours of 15 April. 712 of her 2,208 passengers and crew survived.

Why are container ships backed up in Seattle? ›

Before the pandemic, imports and exports were balanced. TVs and furniture came in, agricultural products went out. But during the pandemic, Washington state is importing far more than it's exporting, so empty containers are piling up on this side of the ocean.

How many ships are missing at sea? ›

Between 2011 and 2021, some 892 vessels were lost at sea. The majority of ships lost during this period—around 357—were cargo ships.
Number of ship losses worldwide between 2011 and 2021, by vessel type.
CharacteristicNumber of losses
Cargo ships357
Fishing vessels124
Passenger ships72
Bulk carriers64
9 more rows
Nov 28, 2022

How many ships sink each year? ›

“every year, on average, more than two dozen large ships sink, or otherwise go missing, taking their crews along with them.” In a prescient comment, she says, “imagine the headlines if even a single 747 slipped off the map with all its passengers and was never heard from again”.

What is causing the US shipping crisis? ›

Many factories temporarily closed, causing large numbers of containers to be stopped at ports. To stabilize costs and the erosion of ocean rates, carriers reduced the number of vessels out at sea. Not only did this put the brakes on import and export, it also meant empty containers were not picked up.

What's causing the shipping crisis? ›

The surge in freight rates and associated costs were largely the result of a mismatch between soaring demand and reduced supply capacity, plus labour shortages and continued on-and-off Covid-19 restrictions imposed in port regions.

What is the unluckiest ship in the U.S. Navy? ›

USS William D. Porter (DD-579), nicknamed the "Willie Dee", was a ship of the United States Navy.
Commissioned6 July 1943
Stricken11 July 1945
FateSunk by kamikazes, 10 June 1945
General characteristics
17 more rows

What is the unluckiest ship in U.S. history? ›

Porter, a Fletcher-class destroyer built during World War II. Known to its crew as "Willie Dee," the destroyer was, with little doubt, the unluckiest ship in US Navy history.

What ship sank with the most deaths? ›

1. The Wilhelm Gustloff (1945): The deadliest shipwreck in history. On January 30, 1945, some 9,000 people perished aboard this German ocean liner after it was torpedoed by a Soviet submarine and sank in the frigid waters of the Baltic Sea.

Why does the US have so many empty shipping containers? ›

Demand for Shipping Containers

Today, obviously, there are more active companies out there today than there used to be five years ago. Along with the added pressure on the global supply chain after COVID, the heightened demand for shipping containers has been a big contributor to the shipping container shortage.

What happens to shipping containers that fall overboard? ›

If the weight of the container and its contents is less than the amount of water displaced it will therefore float. If the weight of the container and its contents (which includes water in the inside space) is greater than the weight of the fluid displaced, the container will sink.

Why do so many cargo ships sink? ›

Think of a dangerous cargo and toxic waste or explosives might come to mind. But granular cargoes such as crushed ore and mineral sands are responsible for the loss of numerous ships every year.

Which ocean has the most shipwrecks? ›

Atlantic Ocean

How many abandoned ships are floating in the ocean? ›

In 2020 the International Maritime Organization (IMO) database listed 438 ships worldwide, with 5,767 crew members, abandoned since 2004; not all cases are referred to the IMO, so the actual number is larger, but unknown. In 2020, by August 470 seafarers on 31 vessels had been abandoned.

What is the largest ship ever lost at sea? ›

It was sunk in 1988 during the Iran–Iraq War, but was later salvaged and restored to service. The vessel was converted to a floating storage and offloading unit (FSO) in 2004, moored off the coast of Qatar in the Persian Gulf at the Al Shaheen Oil Field.
Seawise Giant.
Capacity4.1 million barrels
21 more rows

How many people are currently lost at sea? ›

Over 3,000 migrants lost at sea in 2021: UN - World News.

Who owns the most ships in the world? ›

In 2021, Greece owned the biggest share of the global merchant fleet, about 17.6 percent. China ranked second with a share of some 11.6 percent. At the beginning of 2020, there were around 55,000 ships in the world's merchant fleet.

How long can a ship stay at sea? ›

A cruise ship is capable of remaining at sea without refuelling for around twelve days. Most ships will never be at sea for this length of time though, with the majority completing journeys of 7-10 days or less.

What is Biden doing about the shipping crisis? ›

The White House says plans are in place to increase capacity at major California ports and with large goods carriers, including Walmart, FedEx and UPS. Biden announced that the Port of Los Angeles has agreed to essentially double its hours and go to 24/7 operations.

What hurt the American shipping industry? ›

Port Problems and Supply Chain Woes. The roaring demand severely disrupted supply chains. Major ports in the U.S. couldn't process imports fast enough, trucking companies fell short on drivers, and warehouses ran out of space. Fully loaded ships idled off California beaches for weeks because of port congestion.

Is the shipping problem getting worse? ›

More than 18 months into the pandemic, the disruption to global supply chains is getting worse, spurring shortages of consumer products and making it more expensive for companies to ship goods where they're needed.

Why is everything delayed shipping? ›

These disruptions may have a number of global and economic causes, but are typically related to problems such as supply chain shortages, port congestion, freight shipping capacity restrictions, and vessel delays. The best way to prevent delays resulting from these disruptions is to build supply chain resilience.

Why are shipments from China taking so long? ›

The shipments from China usually took 3-8 days. The first three days are the process from China's warehouse to your location. Then, it needs extra 2 days for some paperwork once it arrives in your country. It includes custom clearance, VAT, and other taxes fee.

Why is shipping so much in the US? ›

Inflation is not the only reason why shipping costs have increased, but it is one of the major reasons. Other factors include the rising cost of labor and materials, as well as the increasing demand for shipping services.

Who is the most feared Navy? ›

  • Most Powerful Navy.
  • Peoples Liberation Army Navy.
  • Republic of Korea Navy.
  • Royal Navy United Kingdom.
  • Russian Navy.
  • Strongest Navy.
  • Taiwan Navy.
  • US Navy.

Has a U.S. carrier ever sank? ›

On May 29, 1944, German U-boat, U-549, torpedoed and sank USS Block Island (CVE-21) west-northwest of the Canary Islands. USS Barr (DE-576) was also damaged in this attack. Block Island was the only U.S. carrier lost in the Atlantic during World War II.

What is the deadliest Navy ship? ›

USS Nimitz and her sister vessels feature unlimited firing range and have state-of-the-art defence systems in place for anti-aircraft warfare and missile defence.

What is the most infamous ship? ›

RMS Titanic

The supposedly "unsinkable" ocean liner set sail on its maiden voyage on 10 April 1912 only to hit an iceberg just before midnight on 14 April and sank in less than three hours. Claiming 1,514 lives, it is often remembered as one of the most famous and tragic shipwrecks in history.

What is the oldest Navy ship still in service? ›

USS Constitution is the oldest commissioned ship in the United States Navy. Naval officers and crew still serve aboard the ship today. The USS Constitution is operated by the United States Navy, a partner to the National Parks of Boston.

What was the ship that never died? ›

The ship earned the nickname "The Ship That Would Not Die" for her exploits during the D-Day invasion and the battle of Okinawa when she successfully withstood a determined assault by conventional bombers and the most unrelenting kamikaze air attack in history.
USS Laffey (DD-724)
United States
Designated NHL14 January 1986
43 more rows

What ship is unsinkable? ›

The RMS Titanic was dubbed “The Unsinkable Ship” by its builders and designers. The ship possessed 16 individual watertight compartments. Each compartment was equipped with electric watertight doors that could be operated individually or simultaneously by a switch on the bridge.

What ship sank the deepest? ›

It is just over a year since the WWII destroyer USS Johnston was confirmed to be the world's deepest shipwreck, found lying on the seabed 6,468.6 m (21,222 ft) below the surface.

Why do shipping containers only last 25 years? ›

When maintained properly, a shipping container can last upwards of 25 years or longer. The lifespan depends on the condition of the container and the environment in which it is kept. Although they are built to resist harsh climates, its' lifespan can be cut short by wetter, saltier climates.

How many shipping containers fall into the ocean every year? ›

According to a World Shipping Council (WSC) report, up to 1,382 sea containers are lost at sea each year. The figure is based on three year averages calculated over a 12-year period – which represents 80% of the global vessel container capacity.

What did Biden do for the shipping containers? ›

Biden administration demands Arizona remove shipping containers in gaps along border. File photo – Shipping containers stacked two high fill a gap in the 30-foot-high bollard border fence near the Yuma Levee Road and Morelos Dam, Friday afternoon, Oct.

Why do sailors throw cargo overboard in a storm? ›

Cargo jettison occurs when cargo containers are lost during sea travel, either as a result of inclement conditions forcing them off the deck or if crews must abandon containers to save the lives of those on board in an emergency situation.

Why do tankers sit out at sea? ›

The reason a ship, most often foreign, anchors for hours or days outside the harbors comes down to two simple words: free parking.

How thick is the floor of a shipping container? ›

The floor of a standard container has an underside clearance of approximately 6 inches (150mm) and the floor has a thickness of 27mm (1.1 inches).

How much does a cargo ship make per trip? ›

Shipping lines earn $861 per container. On average, the largest charted shipping lines netted an operating profit of US$861 per TEU, which stands for 'twenty-foot equivalent unit' - a measurement of cargo capacity based on a typical 20-foot container.

How much do freight ship captains make? ›

The average salary for a ship captain in the United States is around $81,640 per year.

How many cruise ships have sunk? ›

Over the past 100 years since the RMS Titanic sank in 1912, only 18 cruise ships and some ocean liners have been publicly known to have sunk. And, over the past 50 years, only four cruise ships have sunk while navigating on a cruise.

Which US state has the most shipwrecks? ›

Michigan. The Great Lakes have been dubbed the 'Shipwreck Capital of the World' by many. But that's because under the area's 95,000 square miles of water lie nearly 5,000 shipwrecks.

What is the biggest wreck on the ocean floor? ›

It is thought to be the USS Johnston DD-557, sunk during the Battle of Leyte Gulf on 25 October 1944. Ocean researchers have found what they claim is the deepest ever naval shipwreck, believed to be that of a US navy WWII destroyer.

Are there sharks in shipwrecks? ›

Sand tiger sharks grow to about 10.4 feet and researchers have long known they gravitate to shipwrecks as a place to feed on reef fish, including jacks and barracuda. However, it has lately been noted sharks actually prefer shipwrecks over natural reefs, according to Dr.

Do all ships have rats? ›

Most modern ports that cruise ships dock at will not have major rodent problems but historically, pier areas around the world were a haven for rodents due to crates of food, packing materials, and other items that both offered excellent homes as well as food to rats, mice and other rodents.

What is a Ghost Ship? ›

Ghost ships, sometimes also called phantom ships, are vessels with no living crew aboard. These may be real derelict ships found adrift with their crew missing, such as the 19th century HMS Resolute, or fictional and folkloric ones, like the apocryphal Octavius.

What is the most destroyed shipwreck? ›

MV Wilhelm Gustloff

Of the estimated 10,000 people on board the Gustloff, only around 1,000 survived, making it the deadliest sinking in wartime maritime history.

What is the richest shipwreck ever found? ›

On July 20, 1985 - 35 years ago today - Mel Fisher discovered the shipwreck of the Nuestra Senora De Atocha off the Florida Keys. The cargo's value is estimated to be worth around $400 million. The treasure includes 24 tons of silver bullion, ingots, and coins, 125 gold bars and discs and 1,200 pounds silverware.

What was the worst shipwreck in US history? ›

On April 27, 1865, the deadliest maritime disaster in U.S. history occurred when the side-wheel steamship SS Sultana exploded on the Mississippi River just north of Memphis, Tennessee.

What is the most famous unfound shipwreck? ›

The San Jose – The Holy Grail of Sunken Treasures (1708) – $17 billion. One of the most precious shipwrecks in the world, the site of which remained unknown for over three centuries, was revealed in photographs by the Colombian army.

How long can you survive at sea without a boat? ›

This is called the H.E.L.P. -- Heat Escape Lessening Position. Assuming you're in warm waters and wearing a wetsuit and life vest, you could potentially survive for as many as three to five days, at which point you'll most likely succumb to dehydration.

How many ships have gone missing in the ocean? ›

It is estimated that there are over three million shipwrecks worldwide! Less than 1% of these wrecks have actually been explored. Some wrecks are actively being looked for, including the Bonhomme Richard, but many are found by accident. The Dokos shipwreck is the oldest known wreck, dated to 2700-2200 BC.

How long can you survive in the Atlantic ocean? ›

A person can survive for around one hour in 5C water, two hours in 10C and six hours in 15C - but if the temperature is in the high 20s then it is possible to survive for around 25 hours, he says.

Who has the most ships in the world? ›

People's Republic of China

Who is the richest ship owner in the world? ›

1. Li Ka Shing & Family – Net Worth $31 Billion, Hong Kong.

How many times a year do ships sink? ›

“every year, on average, more than two dozen large ships sink, or otherwise go missing, taking their crews along with them.”

What happens if you swim close to a ship? ›

Someone swimming near a cruise ship could be sucked under by the propulsion power. The power can also cause large sudden swells of water which is very strong. Not long ago the Carnival Vista destroyed a small marina in Italy as it got too close.

Will shipping prices go down in 2023? ›

In 2023, freight prices get expected to be adjusted and decrease by 30–40%. It's wonderful news that freight charges are declining, especially for importers.

What is causing shipping delays 2023? ›

The COVID-19 outbreak caused significant harm to the world's supply chains. Lockdowns, labor scarcity, and prolonged port turnaround times have worsened global supply chain issues and shipping delays. Both retailers and customers have been affected by these issues.

What is the freight forecast for 2023? ›

Fifty-four percent of the Freight Rate Survey's respondents reported a negative forecast for 2023, citing concerns such as high fuel costs, increased regulation, inflation, overcapacity and a cooling economy.

What is wrong with supply chain? ›

Supply chain problems emerged during COVID-10 lockdowns due to shifts in demand, labor shortages and structural factors. Evolving geopolitical factors are now causing new risks and pockets of stress. Affected sectors include metals and mining, chemicals, automotives, semiconductors and technology.

Is shipping causing inflation? ›

Our analysis suggests that a doubling of shipping costs causes inflation to increase by roughly 0.7 percentage point. Given the actual increase in global shipping costs during 2021, we estimate that the impact on inflation in 2022 was more than 2 percentage points—a huge effect that few central banks would dismiss.

What's the future of shipping? ›

It is driven by global demand and acts as a facilitator for new trading opportunities and growth. According to figures published by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the average annual growth rate of shipping is estimated at around 3.8% between 2018 and 2023.

Are shipping costs from China coming down? ›

Freight & shipping costs & delays

Extremely elevated logistics costs have been one contributor to inflation during the pandemic. But since the spring of 2022, ocean freight prices have come down, with China-West Coast US rates recently hitting pre-pandemic levels.

Is the supply chain getting better 2023? ›

Supply chain outlook for 2023 revolves around resiliency, optimization, efficiency and a bit of normalcy. Supply chain conditions are expected to improve in 2023 compared to 2022 and 2021, but executives in multiple industries say their companies will focus on resiliency and optimization as conditions remain fragile.

Are ports still congested 2023? ›

Pre-berth waiting times showed clear signs of improvement towards the end of 2022 despite, increasing disruption due to transport sector strikes, and this trend is expected to continue through 2023.

Will the supply chain get better? ›

In a survey conducted in May and June, most supply chain executives said they “don't expect a return to a more normal supply chain until the first half of 2024 or beyond.” Far less, 22%, say they expect a return to normal in the second half of 2023.

Will freight rates go up in 2023 usa? ›

Therefore, air freight rates will keep falling more steeply than sea freight rates. Nevertheless, the rates are not going to fall to the pre-pandemic levels in the first two quarters of 2023 because of several factors like high jet fuel costs, and high inflation.

How much will shipping containers cost in 2023? ›

Meanwhile, long-term contract rates finished 2022 about 20% lower than the pandemic peak of more than $8,000 per container, according to maritime consultancy Drewry, which expects contract rates to halve in 2023. That forecast would put rates at about $3,200, versus the pre-pandemic rate of around $1,500.

Why is freight so slow right now? ›

While household spending on goods has fallen, housing activity has declined also. Decreases in new home construction and existing home sales have affected freight volumes. Also, manufacturing activity has slowed, creating another headwind for freight volumes.


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