Safety at sea has improved significantly in the past twenty years, with losses of large merchant vessels becoming a relatively rare event. Whilst casualties appear to be more common among older and smaller vessels, total losses seem to be on a downward trajectory. Even as the world fleet reached its greatest ever size, last year marked the fewest number of vessel losses on record.
Examining The Vital Signs
Although major accidents will always hit the headlines, merchant ships have in recent times been an extremely low risk form of transport. Total ‘losses’, when vessels are permanently lost from the fleet due to sinkings, groundings or other incidents, have been on a downward trend over the long-term despite the growing fleet. This has been supported by improvements in ship design, an increasing number of port state control inspections and a decline in the proportion of vessels above 25 years old. In 2016, reported losses reached a historically low level of 54 vessels and 0.2m GT, equivalent to just 0.02% of the start year fleet in GT terms.
Looking at the statistics across the major vessel types, losses have typically been greatest in the bulkcarrier sector. From 1996 to 2016 a total of 160 bulkers of 3.7m GT were reported as casualties, accounting for 36% of the total in tonnage terms. On average, bulker losses each year were equivalent to 0.09% of start year bulkcarrier tonnage. In comparison, the total volume of tanker and containership tonnage reported as losses in the same period represented 9% and 5% respectively of total losses (totalling 143 tankers and 49 boxships). Average annual tanker and boxship losses in GT were equivalent to 0.02% and 0.03% of the start year fleets in each sector. In the bulkcarrier sector, losses of larger ships have been more common, with an average vessel size of 23,247 GT, against 6,181 GT for tankers. This is likely to have been supported by stricter regulation on tanker designs since the 1990s as well as improved vetting procedures.
Smaller Ships In The ER?
Sectors with a large number of smaller units represent the majority of losses in numerical terms. In general, smaller ships account for a larger proportion of casualties, with the average size of losses peaking at around 7,600 GT in 2000. 1,033 general cargo ships were reported as losses from 1996 to 2016, making up 50% of the total in numerical terms. Meanwhile, 184 vessels were recorded as losses in the same period in the passenger and ro-ro sectors. Aside from a number of high profile larger vessels such as the “Costa Concordia” and “Sewol”, the majority of these casualties were small passenger ferries, predominantly in South East Asian waters.
The long-term trend of declining vessel losses appears to have continued over the last few years. However, there is still a significant degree of variation between sectors, with older and smaller vessels also much more likely to become casualties. Whilst risk very much remains a part of shipping, the last few years appear to show that merchant shipping is still improving its safety record, with the number of vessel losses continuing to fall.