What’s Wrong With All the Ships?

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

Illustration of a ship encountering a banana peel
Getty; The Atlantic

About the author: David A. Graham is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

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?

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.

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.

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.