The science of container ships, and their perilous crossings of the oceans and seas of the world, may not seem like a particularly engaging topic, but it’s one that affects us all. In 2020 over 3,000 containers fell off ships, according to the World Shipping Council, and that wasn’t an unusual year.

     So what, you might think, it doesn’t affect me. I beg to differ.

     Just think what each on those containers might contain, and still do, mostly at the bottom of the ocean. Food, household goods, dangerous substances, pharmaceuticals and, indeed, almost anything we buy these days.

     Two things brought this topic to mind, recently. First, I read an article about the use of mathematical theory to predict what sea conditions ships will encounter in their voyages. We have all seen/heard about the film “The Perfect Storm” and, maybe, we have subsequently read that such huge waves are actually quite common in the world’s oceans. They are certainly big enough to topple many containers off a ship, and, often, they’re big enough to swallow an entire vessel. Second, I am about to ship my 1946, restored, MG TC from the U.K. to the U.S., and it will come by sea in a container. Nothing like a personal fear to encourage interest in the topic of the dangers of container ships. I would hate to think of my one-of-only-1300-built-that-year MG sitting on the bottom of the Atlantic.

     The other unsung danger of containers falling off ships is that many of them don’t actually sink. The air inside keeps them afloat, usually just below the surface. A forty-foot shipping container could easily sink a destroyer or a submarine, let alone a sailing boat, a private yacht or many reasonable-sized cargo vessels. This has happened reasonably frequently (think 3,000 containers per year times the number of years containers have been around!). Not to a destroyer or submarine, yet, to my knowledge, but that number of potential obstacles only confirms the potential danger to human life. I have a friend who had the experience crossing the Atlantic in a small sailing boat.

     Once containers have fallen off ships, they are obviously impossible to track. So, the sensible approach is to try and stop them falling off in the first place. Enter the mathematics of wave dynamics. If a ship captain can avoid sea conditions that could result in the loss of his containers, everyone wins.

     A team from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology may have a solution to this problem. Their simple mathematical calculations may enable captains to quickly predict the height and direction of incoming waves without the use of expensive, and not too reliable wave radar systems. The formula combines the ship’s size, shape (asymmetric geometry), motion responses, wave height, wave direction and wave frequency to suggest the safest path through the seas. The science of container ships.

     Currently, the scientists have only tested the formula on stationary ship models, so a lot more work has to go into the concept. (There’s aren’t too many large waves in a habour!).

     However, the potential suggests that the system should work well enough to influence ship design, as well as ship captains’ decisions.

     Too late to make me feel any better about shipping my MG, but it could save many lives, not to mention ships and yachts, in the future.

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