Container Dominoes

By Vladimir Brezina

Johna’s recent post about Keith Tantlinger, the inventor of the Twistlock, the device  that has made modern container shipping possible, reminded me of the question that I always have when I see a loaded container ship in the harbor. How securely do all those containers, stacked so high on top of each other, remain stacked when the ship rolls and pitches in heavy weather? (Indeed, how stable is the ship itself when loaded so high, although that’s a different question.) Perhaps suggested by another of Johna’s posts, the image of falling dominoes comes to mind, or perhaps a house of cards…

Well, now there’s an answer.

The Twistlock locking corners that anchor each container to the container below, and to the container above, hold up surprisingly well. In this photo of the Rena, the container ship that grounded a week ago on Astrolabe Reef off the northern coast of New Zealand, entire stacks of containers so anchored lean at a 45-degree angle without collapsing…

But, inevitably, some containers are falling into the sea and washing up on local beaches. Here, “local residents come to look at a washed up container with its cargo of packets of partly-cooked hamburgers littering the beach…”  (Usually, locals do more than just look…) Unfortunately, not just hamburgers, but large amounts of oil are now also washing up on the beach, and there is no end in sight.

The Atlantic has a series of 32 stunning photos of this, New Zealand’s worst environmental disaster. Take a look!

3 responses to “Container Dominoes

  1. I was just wondering this very thing about container ships, as I watched one stacked high go by in the distance out at Brighton Beach last weekend. Now I know they’re impressively stable. Thanks for the post and the link–the photos are fascinating.


  2. They are impressively stable. But some do end up in the ocean each year. How many?

    At any given time, between 5 million and 6 million boxes are in transit. The TT Club calculates that the total number lost over the side is probably less than 2,000 per year. This means that less than 0.005% of the containers shipped each year end afloat in the ocean…”

    Other estimates are up to 10,000 containers lost per year, and these numbers are a few years old. Still, percentage-wise, very few are lost.

    Nevertheless, thousands are lost each year. Although statistically the chances of loss are small, if you are a company, and your container is lost, the consequences can be severe.

    And what happens to the lost containers, and to their contents, is fascinating.

    On the sea floor, the lost containers can become artificial reefs, habitats for marine life. (On the other hand, they can also release toxic chemicals.)

    The most famous story is that of the thousands of Friendly Floatees, plastic bath toys that were released from a container lost in the North Pacific Ocean in 1992, whose drift around the world every since has helped trace ocean currents and understand other aspects of the oceans. This has mostly been the work of oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer (see his newsletter and book, and the recent book, Moby-Duck, about him and the whole “plastic duck” story).


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