Fast & Curious: Short Takes on Random Things

Yoga Mats Galore!

Reading about the MV Zim Kingston shedding over 100 containers into the ocean off the coast of British Columbia put me in mind of the 1941 sinking that inspired Compton MacKenzie’s novel Whiskey Galore! 

No, wait, that’s not strictly true — it put me in mind of Whisky Galore! which I knew had been based on some sort of real-life incident although I could not have told you anything about it except that it involved whisky washing up on the shore of an island in the Outer Hebrides.

I haven’t even read Whisky Galore! although I do, for reasons too complicated to get into, own a German copy of it (I included a picture of it in the feature image — the cover reads, “The Whisky Ship: A Humorous Novel”)

But after some feverish googling, I can now tell you that the incident that inspired MacKenzie was the foundering of the SS Politician, an 8,230-tonne cargo ship en route from Liverpool to New Orleans by way of Jamaica that got blown off course and ended up stranded on a sand bar off the coast of Eriskay, in the Outer Hebrides. Recounting the story on the Scotch Whiskey website, Richard Woodward said:

Events moved quickly after that. The ship’s fuel tanks were ruptured, and its engines gave up minutes later, leaving the crew to await rescue – and salvage of their cargo.

To the locals, beset by the privations of war and rationing, this was too good an opportunity to miss. Unofficial local ‘salvage parties’ began to form, with the men even donning their wives’ old dresses to prevent their own clothes becoming stained by incriminating ship’s oil.

The SS Politician was carrying all manner of trade goods, from cotton to medicines to biscuits, but the ship is best remembered for the contents of Hold Number 5: some 264,000 bottles of Scotch whisky.

Whisky Galore! poster
Locals made off with 24,000 bottles of the premium-brand, duty-free whisky being sent to America, in part, to raise money for the British war effort. Roger Hutchinson in his book Polly – The True Story Behind Whisky Galore, said the cargo included cases of:

The Antiquary, Haig’s Pinch, VVO Gold Bar, Ballantine’s Amber Concave, White Horse, King’s Ransom, Victoria Vat, Johnnie Walker Red and Black Label, Mountain Dew, King William IV, MacCallum’s Perfection, King George IV, PD Special, Old Curio and Spey Royal.

The story, as noted, inspired MacKenzie’s novel which, in turn, inspired an Ealing comedy in which MacKenzie himself actually played a bit part.

But I’m guessing the ZIM Kingston incident will not be inspiring any comedic novels or films. According to the reports I’ve read, the 4,253 TEU container ship’s troubles began last weekend when it hit heavy weather en route to Vancouver from China and began losing containers overboard. It anchored off the Port of Victoria on Vancouver Island and “several” containers caught fire, including two containing a “spontaneously combustible” chemical compound used in mining, potassium amyl xanthate.

Sixteen crew members were evacuated and 106 containers in total fell overboard — including the two containing potassium amyl xanthate, which marine conservation specialists say is “extremely toxic to aquatic life.” Marine experts also worry about the sheer volume of plastic goods that could be released into the ocean, given the manifest showed the other missing containers held:

…Christmas decorations, sofas, poker tables, metal car parts, clothing, toys, yoga mats, stand-up paddle boards, industrial parts and other everyday items.

But no whisky. Unless, of course, a container full of whisky was mis-declared, something that apparently happens a little to often for the insurance industry’s liking in the container shipping world. I know that because I went down a rather deep rabbit hole trying to find out how often container ships catch fire and/or lose cargo, but I think this requires a new item.


Unique risks

Curious, as I mentioned, as to how often container ships catch fire and/or lose containers overboard, I watched this Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty (AGCS) webinar on “Maritime trends to watch in 2022.” (I also read the report this presentation was based on.) It’s probably an insurance thing, but these weren’t fun trends, like, “crepe de chine sails will be all the rage this season,” these were grim trends. (Although the grimmest, from my perspective — the projected growth of Arctic shipping — was hailed as a sort of grand, if fraught, human achievement.)



The presenters’ subject was risks facing vessels over 100GT (gross tonnage), with a focus on very large cargo ships — a category that does not include the ZIM Kingston, which is puny by modern standards. How puny, you ask? Check out this slide from the presentation which shows that a 4,253 TEU vessel like the ZIM Kingston, hasn’t ranked among the world’s largest container ships since 1980:

Slide showing increasing size of container vessels

Source: Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty webinar, September 2021

(Which isn’t to say the ZIM Kingston is an old vessel, it isn’t, it was built in 2008.)

It turns out that fire is a “key issue” with vessels over 100GT — of the 49 such vessels lost in 2020, foundering (24) was the leading cause, but fire/explosion was second (10), hitting a four-year high. In his presentation on the risks faced by these vessels, Captain Rahul Khanna, AGCS global head of marine risk consulting, said:

One of the key issues we’ve seen on the larger vessels has been fire. I think 2019 saw one of the largest numbers of fire on the mega-vessels. It was something like a fire every 10 days and 2020 hasn’t really cooled off…because 2020 saw, I think, one fire every two weeks…And these numbers are staggering in the sense that, we have always had fire as a key peril but, focusing on mega-vessels and big vessels, fire is becoming such a big problem because the methods…in which…we traditionally dealt with fires are probably no longer applicable on these behemoths.

ZIM Kingston on fire off coast of Victoria, BC

ZIM Kingston on fire off coast of Victoria, BC. (Photo by Canadian Coast Guard)

The AGCS report says:

Container ship fires often start in containers, which can be the result of non declaration or mis-declaration of hazardous cargo, such as self igniting charcoal, chemicals and batteries. When mis-declared, these might be improperly packed and stowed on board, which can result in ignition and/or complicate detection and firefighting. The other contributing factor is the fire detection and fighting capabilities relative to the size of the vessel. Major incidents have shown container fires can easily get out of control and result in the crew abandoning the vessel on safety grounds, thus increasing the size of loss.

It also turns out that there was a spike in container losses at sea last year, and that they have continued at a high level in 2021, “disrupting supply chains and posing a potential pollution and navigation risk.”

The number of container losses is the worst in seven years. More than 3,000 containers were lost at sea in 2020, while more than 1,000 alone fell overboard during the first months of 2021. This compares with an average of just 1,382 containers lost each year from around 6,000 container vessels in operation. The rise in container losses may be driven by a combination of factors, such as larger ships, more extreme weather and a surge in freight rates and mis-declared cargo weights (leading to container stack collapse) and the surge in demand for consumer goods. There are growing questions for how containers are secured on board ships.

Captain Andrew Kinsey, an AGCS senior risk consultant, added “the incidence of parametric rolling” to this list. (If you do not know what “parametric rolling” is — I didn’t — and are up for a detailed explanation, I recommend this video.)

I’d read elsewhere that insurance companies were putting the brakes on any further growth in the size of container vessels but it was interesting to hear insurance executives themselves discussing just how catastrophic an accident involving a 24,000 TEU container vessel would be. This year’s report, for instance, noted that had it not been possible to free the Ever Given — the 18,000 container-vessel that got stuck in the Suez canal in March — bringing in specialized cranes to remove those containers would have cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

I also discovered that in the 2019 version of this report, AGCS created a worst-case scenario involving a collision between a cruise ship and a container ship in an “environmentally-sensitive location” that resulted in a $4 billion loss for the imaginary company insuring both vessels:

How a $4B Loss scenario could occur


It’s a rather dry way of discussing crew and passenger death and injury and what would surely be a major environmental disaster, and I know that insurance companies are worried first and foremost about themselves, but I find their take on the shipping industry compelling, given they are people who seem to be actually familiar with the shipping industry (unlike some I could name). So I’ll end with what Kinsey said in that 2019 report:

There is a push for efficiency and scale in the shipping industry but this should not be allowed to give rise to unacceptable levels of risk. We continue to see the normalization of risk in the shipping industry. There have been welcome technical advances in shipping but we do not yet see a commensurate safer environment. There is now much talk of automation and autonomous vessels and how this will be safer. But in truth, innovation will be driven by the bottom line.


Bet on Me, podcast, Annette Verschuren‘Isn’t that cool?’

I told you I’d listen to Annette Verschuren’s Bet On Me podcast so you wouldn’t have to and I’ve kept my word.

Episode Two  — “Building Community Through Inclusive Leadership” — finds her having a “candid chat” with CBRM Mayor Amanda McDougall.

Last week, you may recall, I was wondering if Verschuren had any chops as an interviewer and this week, I can report that she does not. She responds constantly to McDougall in a way I imagine most radio hosts have beaten out of them early in their careers, keeping up a running stream of “yeah,” “yes,” “great,” super,” “isn’t that cool?” “that is so cool,” “absolutely,” “exactly,” throughout their discussion to the point where I found my fingers itching to reach out and mute her mic. (She also offered more personal insights, in case we didn’t get enough of them in Episode One, my favorite being, “Oh my god. The world is our oyster if we decide to make it our oyster.”)

There were other great parts — I really enjoyed, for instance, the moment when Verschuren, who donated $20,000 to McDougall’s mayoral campaign, asked her how she won.

I also enjoyed the part where Verschuren expressed her deep faith in small businesses, harking back to her days at DEVCO when she saw what a “sawmill” could do for a community — that would be before she joined Home Depot Canada and decided that really, people should satisfy all their lumber needs at Big Box chain stores.

I was interested to hear the mayor raise the issue of a CBRM Charter because it just so happens that Derek Mombourquette, MLA for Sydney-Membertou, introduced An Act to Provide for the Development of a Charter for Cape Breton Regional Municipality as a private member’s bill on October 22.

And I was honestly amused by the discussion of the “controversial” strategic planning sessions council held at The Lakes Golf Course in Ben Eoin in March 2021. Verschuren couldn’t understand the objections to these sessions and complimented McDougall for supporting local businessman Rodney Colbourne (owner of The Lakes) and for the way she “managed” all the “negativity” surrounding the sessions. The mayor painted the objections as “there’s this outrage of ‘I can’t believe you’re wasting taxpayer money” without mentioning the outrage (like mine) of “Council should not be holding closed-door meetings it hasn’t even told the public are taking place.”

This wasn’t an interview in any sense of the word, it was a lovefest, and if it’s indicative of what’s to come, my hard little heart is going to have a difficult time plowing through all 13 (!) episodes. I mean, how many exchanges like this can a person like me be expected to bear:

Verschuren: I love your thinking, I love your strategy. You are really something else.

McDougall: Well, Annette, I’ve learned from the best, my dear. Your guidance and your mentorship, your support, and your faith in me, that is the stuff…that makes good leaders.

They ended by stating that each was the other’s beacon and having spent most of yesterday reading about disasters at sea, I immediately pictured them crashing into each other. I hope they’re well insured.