Are 40-year-old ocean-going vessels safe?
The owners of El Faro, the American-flag lost to Joaquin with 33 humans aboard, assert that the age of the vessel — 40-years — was not a factor in the ship’s failure. A number of experts and inspectors support that viewpoint.
But any number of studies clearly show that age is a factor in big ship casualties — and that most casualties occur among older ships.
Moreover, the useful lifetime of a big ship is generally set at 20-years. Ships live on past that time, but insurance rates are higher — a fact that recognizes the risk.
Says an independent 2012 study of ship casualties by Southampton Solent University, School of Maritime and Technology, in the UK:
Says a study in Traffic Review analyzing 30 years of ship casualty data: 78 percent of the total casualties occur among ships that are 13 years and older and “are 3.5 times more frequent than in new and middle-aged ships….”
In fact, the age of a ship is one of several factors the Coast Guard uses to profile potential risk — both in foreign vessels entering our ports and our own fleet.
Can a 40-year-old ship be safe?
Undoubtedly, for a particular period of time.
But experienced sea captains and veteran Coast Guard inspectors say it is difficult to make sure a 40-year-old ship remains in good shape even one day after the inspection. Hidden hoses, rusting pipes, corroded wiring — all may not be visible to the inspector.
So there is little to support a statement that a 40-year-old ship would not encounter problems at sea in normal service. All statistics appear to indicate a strong correlation. Maintenance can offset problems of course.
Age is simply a high risk factor in ships — reflected by the statistics, strong anecdotal evidence and insurance rates.
To state flatly that age would not affect the El Faro is an exaggeration.
To suggest that the age of a vessel would not play a factor when it is heading into or near a hurricane is just plain wishful thinking.