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Why the Maersk Essen lost 689 containers overboard..

On the 16th of January 2021, the Maersk Essen made a splash (literally) when it lost 689 containers overboard on a routine voyage from Xiamen, China to Los Angeles, USA..

The Danish Maritime Accident Investigation Board (DMAIB) decided to initiate an investigation to clarify the events and circumstances leading to the loss of cargo because of the impact on the marine environment and the hazards such an event poses to the ship and crew..

Maersk Essen, a 13,600 TEU capacity container ship with a length overall of 366.45 m lost the containers approximately 450 nautical miles off Hawaii due to heavy rolling..

While the DMAIB made several findings in terms of what happened on the Maersk Essen, the investigation determined that the heavy rolling was most likely a result of parametric rolling..

The main conclusion that was reached was that the Maersk Essen encountered heavy rolling of the seas with roll angles reaching between 25° and 30° which was much more than the cargo securing equipment was designed for or able to withstand..

The ship’s loading condition required the ship to avoid roll angles exceeding 19.18° in order to stay within the stress load limits defined in the ship’s loading and stability computer..

Parametric rolling is the result of a dynamic stability failure mode where the main cause of extreme rolling lies within the ship’s oscillating system.. Thus, heavy rolling can occur in wave and swell heights that are not perceived as adverse to the ship..

Key findings in Maersk Essen investigation

  1. Weather and sea conditions were not out of the ordinary for this sea area.. No extreme weather phenomena were observed, and the ship had encountered similar or worse weather and sea conditions earlier in the voyage, on 12 and 13 January, without experiencing heavy rolling..
  2. Onboard weather routing focused only direction and height of the wave and swell and the risk of parametric rolling or pure loss of stability on a wave crest was not included in the onboard template for weather routing requests..
  3. Weathernews Inc’s (WNI) voyage planning sheets and damage mitigation warnings visually and in text highlighted areas exceeding a predefined wave/swell height thres¬hold which the navigational officers did not perceive as a warning of the risk of parametric rolling..
  4. Crew did not have reliable information or tools readily available onboard to calculate and monitor the risk of parametric roll resonance.. Cargo planning and stowage introduced variabilities that the crew had little influence on or opportunity to react on..
  5. Simulations of the lashing stress loads by Loadstar (stability software) at the time of the accident showed that the limit was exceeded in most bays, but containers were not lost on all bays.. DMAIB did not find any clear indication of what caused the cargo to be lost from some bays and not others with similar conditions..
  6. Variability in stowage and cargo securing might have influenced the stress loads and holding capacity.. However, the direct cause of the lashing failure was the excessive roll angles, which exposed the lashing gear to forces beyond their intended load limit..
  7. Damage patterns indicated that bays stowed with ten containers in height (between 26-29 m high) were more exposed to acceleration forces than bays with lower stacks..

To understand parametric rolling further, I sought the view of an experienced and active Master Mariner for a technical explanation of how parametric rolling works..

Before we get into what parametric rolling is, a ship has 6 different motions when traveling in the ocean as shown below..

6 motions that a ship goes through while in the ocean


What is parametric rolling..?? 

Parametric rollING is a mixture of pitching and rolling occurring simultaneously, resulting in a twisting, dipping motion – very uncomfortable to humans and very stressful for ships and deck cargo.

Parametric rolling mainly occurs under the following circumstances:

  • The length of the wave as the ship moves forward is equal to the length of the ship.
  • The rolling period is twice the wave encounter period.
  • When the above conditions are met, the passing waves cause a variation in the waterplane area that can trigger vessel instability during the vessel’s rolling; this is most common in heavy head seas but can also occur in the following seas when the rolling period is long.
  • Even a few high waves after each other may trigger unexpected large roll motions

parametric rolling and causes - maersk essen

When the wave encounter period is resonant with the natural roll frequency, a sudden and severe rolling motion can result at an angle of more than 40° rapidly developing even in a moderate sea, leading to cargo damage, loss of containers, and in extreme cases, capsizing of the ship.

As the wave crest travels along the hull, it results in flare immersion in the wave crest and the bow comes down, causing the stability of the ship to vary as a result of the pitching and rolling of the ship. The combination of buoyancy and wave excitation forces pushes the ship to the other side.

A similar action takes place as the bow goes down in the next wave cycle resulting in synchronous motion which leads to heavy rolling up to 30 degrees in a few cycles.

This type of rolling is known as Parametric rolling.

While parametric rolling is usually associated with containerships and car carriers that have hull forms with wide, flat sterns and pronounced bow flare, the phenomenon can also occur in other vessels in quarter seas.

Due to the shape of the hull of a container ship, which is less bulky than a tanker or bulk carrier ship of equivalent dimensions, the prismatic coefficient or block coefficient will have smaller values making it easy to roll in both directions midship.

This means roll damping is less in container ships because the whole shape is more streamlined which is also responsible for such a type of roll motion.

The shape of the hull of a container ship (narrow relative to length) causes buoyancy to shift due to the change of the underwater volume when the waves are coming from the quarter causing a virtual decrease of GM (Metacentric Height – when the metacenter (M) is found to be above the center of gravity (G)). If the GM is not sufficient and adequate, this can lead to parametric rolling problems.

This is highly unlikely on a bulk carrier because its hull is almost identical along its length (like box shape) and the GM is always high and not an issue at all in this case (especially when the vessel is in ballast condition, GM can be 7-8 meters).

Sea conditions for parametric rolling

Container ships are most vulnerable to parametric rolling in following sea conditions.

  • Unfavorable combinations of the rolling period;
  • Wave conditions;
  • Ships’ speed;

Heading of the ship can also initiate sudden and extremely prompt increase of roll motions to hazardous levels, threatening the safety of the vessel, crew, and cargo and this scenario can take place even in relatively mild wave heights.

The build-up of parametric rolling requires a threshold wave height in addition to the fulfillment of the above condition of frequencies and the minimum wave height is determined in principle by two factors:

a) The degree of fluctuation of roll restoring due to wave passage
b) The ship’s roll damping which is speed dependent

Ship’s roll damping is a key design parameter for the avoidance of parametric rolling.

As we have seen, the size of container ships has been steadily increasing as companies are looking forward to mega ships which have a large bow flare and wide beam to decrease the frictional resistance generated when the ship’s fore-end passes through the water, making it streamlined with the hull.

Not even the most state-of-the-art computational programs available currently can claim to calculate the roll damping accurately for any given vessel including all roll damping devices.

Effects of Parametric Rolling

Parametric rolling has below effects on a ship, especially a container ship

  • Heavy stresses in ship structure especially in fore and aft parts
  • Extreme stresses on the container and their securing system resulting in failure of the same and even loss of containers
  • Unpleasant for the crew of the ship
  • Variation in the load of the ship’s propulsion engine
  • If not tackled quickly, it can result in the capsizing of the ship

Possible countering actions in case of Parametric Rolling

Below are some possible actions that the ship can take in case parametric rolling is experienced

  • If rolling and pitching occur simultaneously, avoid a head-on sea, and change the route
  • Change of course/speed, fill up the DB tanks to increase GM
  • Always maintain a correct GM so the ship is not too tender or too stiff
  • The roll damping measures must be quickly used

A decent thumb rule to follow is :

  1. Make course alterations to keep the swell on the beam or the stern.
  2. The speed must be equivalent to a factor of 0.8 to the rolling cycle or 2.0. Anything in between is going to result in heavy parametric rolling and loss of containers.


Results of the investigation of what happened on the Maersk Essen, the information shared about parametric rolling and its impact, highlight the sober fact that this phenomenon of parametric rolling may not yet be very well known..

This, combined with DMAIB’s findings on the concerns surrounding the stacking of 10+ tiers of containers on deck which is quite prevalent with the new generation mega container ships, says that this may not be the last mega container ship to face such an issue..

The industry is also awaiting the report for ONE APUS, a 14,052 TEU containership that encountered gale-force winds and large swells around 1,600 nautical miles northwest of Hawaii, USA (similar to Maersk Essen) causing an estimated 1,816+ containers to be lost overboard or dislodged from its lashings..

As per the DMAIB, Maersk from its side has taken immediate preventive measures like

  • Review of crew training material pertaining to parametric roll
  • Fleet-wide knowledge sharing to vessel crew re-emphasizing the importance of route advises
  • Procedure reviewed pertaining
  • Navigation in adverse weather
  • Flowchart in vessel emergency response manual
  • Reiterating guidance and onboard calculator basis MSC1228
  • Revision of onboard heavy weather checklists
  • Procedure revision in collaboration between WNI (Weather Route provider) and Maersk
    including a revision of severity thresholds for weather route advise

From its side, the WNI is reviewing communication risks relating to

  • the specificity of warnings and understanding under what context those warnings may be assessed by the recipient
  • whether the warnings are clear and understandable to the recipient
  • whether they target the correct risks; and
  • whether the recipient understands what actions may be required to mitigate those risks..


The section relating to parametric rolling was contributed by an experienced and active Master Mariner..

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Hariesh Manaadiar
Hariesh Manaadiar
I am Hariesh Manaadiar, the Founder of Shipping and Freight Resource.. I have been in the dynamic shipping and freight industry for over three decades and have worked in several sectors.. I share my experiences and knowledge of the industry through this blog for those looking for help in the industry.. Stay subscribed for more free useful content about shipping, freight, maritime, logistics, supply chain and trade..


  1. Hi all.
    A system to monitor exactly this, is developed and tested by us. We measure all movement on the ship front, mid-ship and aft and analyze the data real-time for the ship to react in due time. System i sea-tested for more than a year!
    I am avaible for more information if needed.

  2. Agreed that I am surprised to hear the excellent detail above but not about any passive recording black box, nor anyone using fluid dynamics software to derive live torque and acceleration axis into warnings at the helm. AI would be nice too, but needs training – which means to do what Tesla does and rig every boat with sensors that report back almost real-time to a training system to learn and adapt its recommendations over time.

    • Thanks for the comment Hans.. Yes, for sure there are several things to learn from each incident and arrive at solutions.. On the back of these mega container ships, all these are still very new even for the most experienced seafarers.. These can’t be live tested or simulated even with the best simulators..

  3. Thank you Hariesh and #shippingandfreightresources for a very informative article.

    Considering the enormity of cargo lost at sea, the cost and consequences to the beneficiary cargo owner, it is surprising that there are two glaring omissions in this detailed enquiry and recommendations.

    1. The placement on board of AI based software that analyses all vessel movements and sends alerts and notifications to the wheelhouse and the master, of progressive worsening of sea, swell and the vessels reaction, and recommendations of change in direction and speed.

    2. Any analysis of how aircrafts and the aviation industry deal with extreme weather conditions, turbulence and maintaining airworthiness and passenger safety.

    I must admit I have not heard of any such vessel monitoring software being in existence, and I am sure your followers and the experts in this field would pitch in to comment.

    I am also not aware if other than the primitive clinometer, there are any bridge devises that record roll-period and predict any increase or alert for a catastrophic approach to the mentioned 19.8 degrees. we had graphs on the echo sounder and the course recorder years and years ago – but have we advanced in this area at all ?

    if not, would it not be about time that the shipyards, vessel, cargo and insurance interests step in and ensure that there is one.

    There is an enormous amount of funds being invested in bigger and bigger ships, yet one of the critical factors of size is the adverse effects of weather and as a direct consequence, the impact on cargo.

    While daylight allows the master and the bridge team to see the sea and swell, assess far better the vessels movement and the

    Safety is a paramount concern for airlines, and they treat passenger wellbeing above schedules and costs. There is an exponential amount that aircraft manufactorers spend on how the airframe handles in stress and what the impact in the cabin and the hold is. A ULD breaking loose – like these containers do from securing – is catastrophic. Aircrafts dont have the luxury of cargo or a ULD falling of the aircraft because it would rip open the fusalage and that would be catastrophic.

    Perhaps you’d care to write a follow-up piece and invite maritime (and aviation) experts to comment on these two areas ?


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