Zim Declares General Average After Hold Fire Damaged Containers

Zim General Average declaration
Zim declared General Average after a fire aboard on of its chartered vessels (file photo)

Published Aug 23, 2022 3:55 PM by The Maritime Executive

Two weeks after a container fire broke out in the hold of the Zim Charleston, reports indicate the charterer has now declared a General Average situation for the vessel. The full extent of the casualty remains unclear as neither Zim nor the vessel’s owner Seaspan, has released details. The vessel remains docked in Colombo, Sri Lanka where it is believed the authorities, as well as insurance and claims adjusters, are reviewing the damage while they also seek the cause of the fire.

The 102,500 dwt vessel had departed Colombo on August 8 and AIS signals show it circled and then turned back to the port where it docked again on August 11. The 11-year-old vessel has a capacity of 8,586 TEU and was on a voyage from China and Hong Kong which included a stop in Singapore before arriving in Sri Lanka. Registered in Hong Kong, the vessel is operating under charter from her owner Seaspan to Zim.

Cargo claims consultant WK Webster is providing the only information on developments regarding the incident. They initially reported that they believed approximately 300 containers had been affected by the fire, heat and smoke, and water damage arising from the firefighting operations. The fire was believed to have been in the number four cargo hold and apparently, the crew was successful in containing the fire to the hold with possibly some damage to containers in the stacks directly above. 

All the impacted containers, it was believed, were going to be offloaded and surveyed in Colombo. Webster advised that it was its understanding that further investigations were being made at Colombo to ascertain whether it is safe to discharge containers from the affected hold and to determine the cause of the fire.

In its latest update, Webster advises “General Average security will be required from all cargo interests prior to the delivery of their cargo…. We are currently in contact with average adjusters to ascertain the terms of the GA security to be provided.”

Under the archaic maritime law, the operator of the ship, in this case Zim that charters the vessel can invoke the law of General Average that permits the ship’s operator to proportionally share the costs of salvage and recovery of the cargo. It is unclear when shippers with cargo aboard the vessel might be able to receive it as it is not known if the Zim Charleston will continue on its voyage or if the containers might be transferred to other vessels. 

While reports of fires aboard containerships have decreased in recent years, insurance experts point out that they persist and remain a significant danger to the industry. Insurer Gard, for example, highlighted in 2020 that “statistics suggest that the frequency of fires emerging from containerized cargo is not going down. By our count and on average there has been roughly one fire every two weeks so far in 2020.”

Gard’s analysis said the most frequent source of cargo-related fires is still self-heating in charcoal. In second place are various kinds of dangerous chemicals which remain problematic due to inadequate or incorrect packing and incorrect cargo information being declared in the booking process, followed by batteries which were becoming an increasingly large cargo due to global demand. 

Mis-declaration of the contents of containers and improper packing of the contents of containers remains the industry’s primary concern. Unaware of what is inside the boxes makes it impossible for shipping lines and vessel planners to control where the containers are stowed. Improper stowage raises the danger that the ships might be unknowingly exposing the content to heat sources or other dangers.