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Floating containers – a hazard to boating

by Kim Lyneborg, Scaletronic and Powerboat-World.com on 13 Jul 2007
Containership - count how many are missing? SW
It must be a shock to hit a floating container at sea. For large vessels it might only cause a scratch, but for powerboats, fishing vessels or sailing vessels it could be fatal. International reports indicate that between 2,000 and 10,000 containers are dropped into the sea each year.

These remain floating for some time in the water or just below the surface.

Why do the containers float, and for how long?

10,000 dropped containers, compared to a total of 5 or 6 mill. transported each year, might seem like a small problem, if the containers were going down immediately – but they are floating.

We can analyse the container as a vessel. A 20´ box has a volume of just over 38 cubic metres, and a 40´ box has a volume of 77 cubic meters. The density of sea water is 1.025, which increases the volumes (or displacement values) to just over 39 and 79 cubic meters respectively.

The force required to push the box under the water, or to sink it, would therefore have to exceed the volume of water to be displaced – 39 tons and 79 tons. It therefore seems that if either size of container is watertight (which is rarely true!), then it will float.

Assuming that containers are rarely watertight, we can estimate that 11 kg of seawater per hour would enter an empty container, taking some 57 days for a 20´ box and 183 days for a 40´ box to sink.

For loaded boxes, we have to look at the nature of packed goods. Today cargo is well secured against damage during handling. Often products are first put into a plastic bag, then stabilized with styropack, or in generic term EPS–material (98 % air), placed in a tight carton and wrapped with plastic on a wooden pallet. The average weight for palletised cargo is 150 to 200 kg pr. cubic metre.

If we look at heavy cargo, like canned tomatoes, they are wrapped with tight plastic in lots of 12 or 24 pcs. The cans are packed side by side, leaving 21% air. Tomatoes have almost the same weight as seawater, and packed tightly into a 20´ box, the weight will be approx 30 ton, plus nearly 3 ton for the box itself, which will still float as you need 39 ton to sink the container.
The average weight for containers is 22 tons, giving an average of 500 kg/m3 for 20´ and 250 kg/m3 for 40´ containers. You need more than 1000 kg/m3 to sink the container. Imagine containers with 10 % EPS–material, they will never sink, as the absorption of water is only 4 % in a year.

In time, the containers at sea will get damaged by waves, from hitting reefs, or due to the increased pressure of water, and sink, but it will take a very long time.

If we estimate that the containers float for an average of three months (very conservative) – this means there would constantly be between 500 and 2,500 containers floating around the world.

You have a change of seeing these float giants by day, but at night, what can you do?

There is one solution that might have seemed out landish a few years ago, but not so now.

The global thermal imaging giant FLIR is developing a range of thermal cameras for marine use.

Powerboat-world.com spoke to FLIR’s Tony Kelly who says that in a few years thermal cameras, were prohibitvely expensive but are now in the price range for offshore powerboats and cruisers.

‘It’s like GPS was 7 or 8 years ago. GPS 10 years ago was quite specialised, and pretty big and bulky. We’re sure that in a few years time thermal cameras will be just another accessory that you add to your boat. Right now they are are sensible investment for boats who will be spending a lot of time at sea and in unfamiliar places.’

Kelly anticipates that cruising sailors and superyachts will use FLIR thermal cameras at night for security, as a navigation aid and as part of their man overboard response.

Thermal imagery cameras produce images of infrared or ‘heat’ radiation that is invisible to the human eye. The camera is able to produce images because of the temperature differences between objects.

‘All objects give out energy. Anything above zero degrees kelvin gives out energy and these cameras are looking at this particular part of the spectrum. We’re not looking at visible light at all. We’re basically looking at energy given out by all objects.’

‘It can be absolutely pitch black and the cameras will still see the energy given out by the object. That’s why they’re so useful at night. Because objects are still giving off energy and you can see these objects.’

The camera sends continuous video image of the boat’s surroundings through to a display screen; it’s like watching a black and white television.

‘People have got their radar and their GPS and all that other equipment, which is really useful, but there’s nothing like seeing what’s ahead of you…and this is what this allows you to do.’

FLIR will be displaying three models at the Sydney International Boat Show; the Mariner, Navigator and the top end Voyager.

‘The price is fantastic. The Navigator is around US5000 and the Mariner is not quite double that. Some people think that’s pretty expensive, but for a thermal camera, that is just a fantastic price. Two or three years ago we didn’t have a camera for less than US$50,000.’

The Navigator, Mariner and Voyager models are exempt from US licensing requirements.

‘The thermal cameras are used extensively in the military. That’s why the licensing is required because the technology is military based…And they require licensing from the US State department…And that can take anywhere from three to four months, and it can be a real pain.’

‘With these cameras, because they’re geared to a lower frame rate, we can get around that. So there’s no licensing required. They’re basically off the shelf. People can order them and be delivered in a couple of weeks.’

Kelly says that boaters are buying the thermal cameras for a range of reasons. Some customers are pure ‘early adopters’- they quickly embrace new technologies and are keen to have the cutting edge products.

It’s likely that the cameras are being purchased to help reduce some of the anxiety associated with night sailing.

‘The applications are just endless…There’s these floating shipping containers out at sea which are just floating around. It really does scare people, especially at night. You’re just going along and then whack!’

‘With a thermal camera, as long as the container is a little bit above water, you’d be able to see them.’

www.flir.com

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