Today’s Shipping Intelligence Weekly comes on the 896th anniversary of what was, back then, one of the most catastrophic losses to hit shipping for many years. On November 25th 1120, the sinking of the so-called White Ship off the French port of Barfleur killed the heir to the English throne and prompted a civil war between the forces of Matilda and Stephen. Fortunately, ships are safer today!

White Ship On The White List?

According to the historical record, the White Ship had been “recently-refitted”, although it seems unlikely that standards in the yards would have been on a par with the present system of special surveys. Today, the industry has an interlocking network of regulatory bodies dedicated to preventing casualties and losses. These include flag states, class societies, port state control bodies and others.

The loss of Prince William Adelin’s White Ship was blamed at the time on “excessive drunkenness and overcrowding” amongst the crew: not something that would be tolerated by today’s port authorities. Back to the 21st century, the Graph of the Week shows the number of total losses recorded by Clarksons Research by ship type. Over the long term, the trend is downward: 153 losses were registered in 1996, but only 51 have been recorded so far for 2015 (ships 100+ GT).

It is possible that a more systematic approach to safety and environmental monitoring has helped to ensure that only well-maintained ships put to sea. In 1996, the MoUs collectively performed just over 30,000 inspections, 9.6% of which resulted in a detention. By 2015, the number of inspections had risen to more than 80,000. But detention levels have consistently declined, to 3.5% of vessels inspected in 2015. The most likely explanation for this is that fewer vessels with deficiencies serious enough to warrant detention are being encountered.

The reduced trend in losses has been particularly marked since 2009, driven by fewer losses of small general cargo vessels. 1,817 general cargo vessels have been scrapped since the start of 2009. This has removed elderly breakbulk tonnage (which hung on in the boom) from the market, possibly reducing losses.

A Big Loss

Of course, although losses have become less frequent in numerical terms, a persistent fear for the industry is a high profile casualty (as the White Ship was). Analogous modern-day examples might include the Costa Concordia ($1.2bn salvage cost) or Rena ($0.7bn). The ability of salvage operators, hull & machinery insurers or P&I clubs to handle a larger loss of an ultra-large containership or cruise ship has been much debated.

Accidents Happen…

The grounding of the rig Transocean Winner off Scotland in August shows that even in the modern maritime world of the 21st century, vessels still get into difficulties. Fortunately, this was not a disaster: minimal oil was spilled, and the drilling unit was speedily salvaged. The indicators on the graph suggest that the industry may be becoming safer. In numerical terms, only 0.05% of the world fleet 100+ GT was lost in 2015, down from 0.26% back in 1996. These are positive signs, but, as much of the English government discovered aboard the White Ship, the sea always needs treating with respect. Have a nice day.