Maritime Hull Losses and Its Lack of Connection to the Age of the Ship

Maritime accidents like collisions are fairly common but that kind of accident does not necessarily result in sinking. Most actually end up with the ships just having dents in their hulls. Capsizing also happens but not all ships that capsize actually sink though they might be touching the sea bottom (because it is in shallow waters). Government authorities are wont to use the term “sinking” but I prefer not to use that term in describing maritime events that results in dead ships because not all ships that figured in maritime accidents actually sink.

The term I prefer to use is “maritime hull losses” since sinking is not the only cause of sailing ships ending up as dead ships. Like fire on the ship that does not sink or beaching of the ship to save the passengers and crew or even wrecking to escape the wrath of the sea. In calamitous events like those, the ship lies over land or might still have buoyancy but the ship ends up dead because it is Beyond Economic Repair or BER. Usually the ending of those three events I mentioned is the breaking up of the ship. To repeat, the ship ends up dead but it did not actually sink.


Photo Credit: Joel Bado

Sinking is also not an irreversible event. There are sinkings where the ship was refloated after. It can be done if it is in shallow waters and near the shore. Some of the refloated ships are repaired and still sail after that. But many are refloated just to be broken up. The steel of the ship though sunk is still valuable as scrap metal.

I have a database of 350 plus ships from the conclusion of World War II that ended up as maritime hull losses. I suspect this is far from complete since the distribution is skewed in favor of the recent years. What that probably means is there was under-reporting or paucity of reporting in our earlier years or records were lost. This is much possible since many of our ships have IMO Numbers and not all were built by the mainstream shipyards and those are barely covered by the international maritime databases. And the listing of local authorities including MARINA and the Philippine Coast Guard is even more lacking than the international maritime databases.


Photo Credit: Vince Emille Malazarte

My database of 350 plus maritime hull losses does not include motor bancas unless it is really significant or really big. There are no fishing bancas included and very few steel-hulled fishing vessels are included. And to think that among ship categories fishing bancas and motor bancas will probably rank Number 1 and Number 2 in terms of maritime hull losses and most of them are outright sinking. These are vulnerable crafts and fishing vessels can be caught by storms in the seas because historically PAGASA in not good in making local forecasts (they can only do regional, provincial or city forecasts unlike international weather sites and maritime weather services). Motor bancas can be caught too even without a storm as the wind and waves on the other side of the island might be different from where they came.

The causes of the 350 maritime hull losses can be roughly divided into the following:

  1. Foundering

  2. Wrecking

  3. Grounding that resulted in BER

  4. Capsizing and sinking

  5. Capsizing but not sinking (but BER)

  6. Collision and sinking

  7. Fire, both sunk and not sunk (but BER)


Photo Credit: Britz Salih

Foundering almost always happens in a storm or typhoon when the ship takes in an excess of water in the hull making it lose it balance. In such case the cargo or the rolling cargo can shift and cause a list. If the pumps fail or it can’t function because of the list it is usually goodbye to the ship already. Foundering can also be caused by the ship’s engine conking out in a storm. In such cases the ship cannot maneuver and will take in water faster. If the ship can’t bail out water fast enough freeboard is lost and soon water will begin entering through spaces that cannot really be sealed enough (and that is why it was already proven that high sides to a ship is a plus for survival). Foundering can be technically called a navigation error. In the main it will not connote that the ship is already old unless the failure of the engine was the primary cause of foundering. But then engine failure can also be caused by shoddy maintenance which is not necessarily old age.


Photo Credit: Manila Chronicle and Gorio Belen

Wrecking is usually an emergency maneuver of a ship to escape a frothing sea it cannot survive. It is much better than foundering because most of the lives in the ship is saved while in foundering lucky is the soul that can survive the roiling seas that made victim of their ship. And besides in wrecking the remains of the ship can still be salvaged. However, in wrecking there is so much damage in the hull, propeller, rudders and other parts of the ship that it becomes BER especially if the hull is breached in beaching and takes in water. Even without breaching of the hull a storm can also pour so much water into the ship. Wrecking is not be a navigation error and there is also no link to the age of the ship.


Photo Credit: Salvtug and John Carlos Cabanillas

In grounding, the ship touched bottom while running or hit a rock while sailing. Grounding is certainly a navigation error and it has no connection to the age of the ship unless it was caused by the failure of the steering mechanism. Sometimes grounding are suspected to be an attempt to wreck the ship to just collect insurance but grounding is not common the recent years. Many ships ground actually but few suffer hull breaching that is enough for the ship to be declared BER.


Photo Credit: Aris Refugio

In capsizing and sinking, there might be a storm or there might not. Sometimes a ship will be hit by a rogue wave, then list if the cargo shifts (rolling cargo is prone to this) and later capsize or is beached. Sometimes there will be a hole that let water into the hull but was only usual in the decades past when hull strength is not yet tested during drydocking. At times a ship will be lost at sea without another ship able to assist and the presumption will first be “missing” and then capsizing and sinking if there is no storm in the vicinity and sufficient time has passed and there is no more sighting of the ship. [It is considered foundering if there was a storm in the vicinity.] In most cases it cannot be connected to the age of the ship unless the hull simply developed a hole. Breaking of the hull into two is not even considered automatically due to old age as the ship might still be new but there was a design defect.


Ships can also capsize but not sink. These happens when the ship is anchored near the shore in shallow waters, moored in the docks or was even in a shipyard. Sometimes the cause is a storm or a typhoon but since the ship is not navigating then it is not called foundering but instead it is called capsizing. A ship capsizing while moored might have damage that could be considered BER. Events like this also have no direct correlation to the age of the ship unless the previous failure is associated with the age of the ship like perhaps the steering mechanism having a mechanical failure or simply dropped to the sea.


Photo Credit: Lindsay Bridge

In collision and sinking the hull of the ship is breached letting water in and making the ship lose balance and buoyancy. If the ship goes down fast then many lives can be lost especially if it happens at night. This has also no direct correlation to the age of the ship since the ramming ship does not ask first what is the age of the ship being rammed. It can be new, it can be old.



Photo Credit: Philippine Herald and Gorio Belen

In cases of fire, the ship might sink or might not. If it did not and it resulted in a hull loss it is because the point of BER was reached. This usually happens if the fire started in the engine room fire or a large percentage of the hull of the ship burned especially if it included the bridge. In sustained high temperatures, the superstructure of the ship is compromised and sometimes buckles. In all the 7 cases this might be the case which has the nearest connection to age but it might also just be simple poor maintenance on the part of the shipping company or even weak response of the firefighting crew

There is a small percentage among the 350 plus maritime hull losses of being bombed or there was an explosion or the ship was lost in enemy action (in Vietnam). Again these three cannot be directly connected to the age of the ship.


Photo Credit: Infolagoon and Ramiro Aranda Jr.

So I really wonder about this plan of Secretary Tugade of culling ships that are 35 years old. Definitely, there is no empirical or historical evidence supporting that. As the shipowners pointed out there is no rule in the IMO (International Maritime Organization) or anywhere that ships over 35 years old must be retired. They are only retired if they can no longer meet inspection or qualification requirements.

The way I observe Secretary Tugade, it is obvious he does not know ships or maritime issues. Maybe he should quit listening to the whispers of Secretary Cusi who has vested interest in shipping and maybe he should study ships first and maritime issues. I am sure his lawyer training did not include maritime courses.

Early in President Duterte’s term I expressed fears against fiats especially fiats that favor vested interests. We might see one developing now.