How many ships disappear each year?

Oil tanker in Greenwich, SydneyWhen I read The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean, one statistic that astonished me was that “two large ships sink every week on average [worldwide] ” according to Dr Wolfgang Rosenthal. The author, Susan Carson, suggests that the numbers are high, but that

“every year, on average, more than two dozen large ships sink, or otherwise go missing, taking their crews along with them.”

In a prescient comment, she says,

“imagine the headlines if even a single 747 slipped off the map with all its passengers and was never heard from again”.

In the wake of the MH370 loss, I thought it was worth seeing if ships were still disappearing at such a great rate. According to an annual analysis from insurer Allianz, 94 ships (over 100 gross tonnes) were completely lost in 2013. There are many reasons for a complete loss. “Foundering” (which means sinking or submerging) caused the vast majority of the big losses.

But the big question, is how many disappeared without a trace? Again, according to the report, there were 7 ships that were “missing/overdue” in the 11 years from 2002 to 2013.

Disappearing aeroplanes aren’t that common either – here is the list of all that have ever happened. Before MH370, there were two since 2002 – one of which was fairly clearly a theft (although it has never been found).

So my conclusion from reading the Lloyds/Allianz data (commercial data is generally the best source, given that it involves money) is that around just under one ship, on average, completely disappears without a trace every year. Spooky, but given that around 100 large ships are completely destroyed (mostly sunk) every year, it is not that many.

Allianz graphic on piracy at seaAs a bonus, here is a chart on piracy from the Allianz report, showing that South East Asia is the risky place for marine piracy – watch out if you are sailing in the area.

  2 comments for “How many ships disappear each year?

  1. Rainmaker
    March 31, 2014 at 6:25 pm

    A lot more ships are stolen and taken to countries where they are sold for scrap iron (it’s quite easy to change the flag of a ship since most ships are on open registries). The owners prefer to declare the ship has “foundered” since it’s easier to claim the insurance proceeds.

    A similar problem occurs in the life insurance industry when there are “disappearances”. In such a scenario the immediate relatives cannot lodge a claim.

    • Rainmaker
      March 31, 2014 at 9:04 pm

      Just to add further to the above comment, in some countries there has been a surge in enforced disappearances which may or may not be politically motivated. The unfortunate aspect of this is that life insurance payouts do not occur in these cases until a stipulated period (10 years) has passed. Different countries have their own rules and obviously different companies have their own policy.

      Owners with ships missing at sea face the same problem.

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