KC Maritime Consultancy Ltd.

Recently, a post (and poll) on LinkedIn attracted my attention. The post included an article published by the UK P&I Club, titled “Can a bulk carrier carry containers”? I found numerous articles by other P&I Clubs and Classification Societies covering the topic, albeit from different perspectives.

So, why the sudden commotion about loading containers on bulk carriers when they can be carried on board multipurpose vessels and also relatively easily accommodated on general cargo ships and log/bulk carriers?

The pandemic-caused disruption in the supply chain resulted also in container vessels’ ports congestion. With container vessels sitting idle at anchorages, demand for container slots has increased to apparently unprecedented levels. This container shipping demand in turn caused freight rates to skyrocket.

Although it can be assumed that a downward trend in container freight rates should be expected at some point, predictions are that the rates would not even start to settle till middle 2022, let alone decrease.

The sky-high container freight rates caused some owners of bulk carriers to contemplate getting involved in the container trade. Well, why not?

Because the simple fact of the matter is: bulk carriers are not designed to carry containers.

That fact aside, would this notion be feasible? Opinions on the feasibility of such a venture are divided; from ‘can do’ attitudes mostly from Classification Societies to reluctance and warnings of obvious risks involved from P&I Clubs.

Bulk carriers carrying containers is not a new concept as P&I Club Gard pointed out in their recent article “Carriage of containers on bulk carriers”, in which they directed the reader to their article published in the year 2000 “Containers on non-cellular ships”, where Gard has made but a brief reference to carriage of containers on bulk carriers.

Gard said that the “type of stowage and securing system on an elderly bulk carrier may consist of painted marks on the tank top, to show where to place the containers, together with dunnage and a collection of wires, bulldog grips, and turnbuckles. The containers carried on such a vessel would be extremely vulnerable in the event of bad weather conditions being encountered. Carriage of containers on non-fitted ships should be restricted to small numbers and is not considered further in this article”.

This description, as brief and simple as it is, is also as realistic as it can get.

However, twenty years on, the topic is hot and Class Societies have already published practical guidance on how to carry containers on bulk carriers.

Bureau Veritas for example has published “Guidance for studying and preparing a bulk carrier for the carriage of containers”. Some of the key issues covered are:

–       Selection of the bulk carrier related to the type of hatch covers and size of hatchway opening to facilitate the loading and unloading.

–       SOLAS requirement for Fixed Fire Extinguishing system inside cargo holds regardless of carriage of dangerous goods; 

–       The extra windage area due to the containers stowed on deck to be taken into account in developing a minimum GM curve for type B-60 vessels;

–       The extra windage area to be taken into account in the intact stability calculations for type B and B-60 vessels;

–       Number of bays and stacks in cargo holds, on deck and hatch covers.

It is also mentioned that with a cargo of containers, bulk carriers are not likely to reach their full deadweight draft, but rather have a draft similar to the ballast condition. This will result in a high GM value, rendering the vessel ‘stiff’ which causes bigger acceleration forces and greater strain on the cargo and the vessel’s construction.

In addition, should owners opt for fitting container bottom sockets and pad eyes in cargo holds, on deck and hatch covers, a change in class notation would be required to include “equipped for carriage of containers”.

This brings us to P&I Clubs’ warning that the necessary modifications could constitute a change of vessel’s use which would undermine claims in case of accidents.

P&I Clubs in general point to the fact that the list of issues related to the loading of containers on bulk carriers is by no means exhaustive. From technical through operational to legal. Even a simple retrofitting for occasional carriage of containers requires careful consideration of key issues such as hull structure, stowage and securing, stability, statutory certificates and documents update, weather routing consideration, seaworthiness, to name but a few.

Even if the whole modification process goes according to plan, one very important issue that cannot be stressed enough remains: frequent accidents onboard container ships which are intended and equipped to carry containers safely, such as fire, explosion, stack collapse, loss of cargo overboard, resultant pollution, and loss of life, due to wrongly declared container contents and weights, point to the fact of the intrinsic unsafety of container carriage.

So no, containers cannot be carried safely on bulk carriers, just as they cannot be carried safely on container ships, where the former would always be much less adequate than the latter.

Therefore, it would be prudent to pass on the opportunity to make a hefty profit in the current container market, bearing in mind possible adverse consequences and associated costs.

Each to their own, bulk carriers have more than a fair share of their own risks to deal with.