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Protecting Your Shipping Cargo During Hurricane Season

Emily Heaslip

Hurricane season is well underway, and with an above-normal Atlantic hurricane season predicted, shipping companies will need every resource to keep operating on schedule these next few months. 

Hurricanes can do significant damage to supply chains. Hurricane Sandy in 2012 caused the loss of more than 15,000 containers and flooded 16,000 new vehicles. And, as climate change contributes to more intense hurricanes, shipping companies need more precise data and accurate marine weather forecasts to safely avoid storms at sea. 

[Read more: How Maritime Weather Forecasting Minimizes Risks in Shipping Operations

From better maritime weather forecasting to putting the right person in charge, here’s how shipping companies can protect their cargo and employees during hurricane season.  

How does hurricane season impact logistics?

Lost cargo aside, hurricanes can wreak havoc on global shipping routes. Hurricane season in the Atlantic runs from June 1 – November 30. During these months, shipping companies have to plan for everything from delayed travel times to port closures, altered shipping and distribution routes, lower shipping volumes, and increased rates. 

Preparation is key, however — especially given how difficult the last year has been on logistics companies. “Every single dollar spent to prepare for or mitigate the effects of extreme weather on any business can offset up to seven dollars in recovery and reconstruction costs following a natural disaster or extreme weather event,” said Rob Townley, Head of Maersk Special Project Logistics. “With the global pressure seen on today’s supply chains, it is more important this year perhaps than any in recent history to plan ahead with suppliers and logistics service providers to put contingency plans in place as early as possible to mitigate the effects of seasonal climate risk.”

When ships are forced to change course or delay due to storms, the costs add up quickly. Fuel consumption alone can cost tens of thousands of dollars per day. Ships trying to move faster make up for lost time or that spend more time re-routing can eat up fuel fast — escalating costs dramatically. 

When hurricanes make landfall, ports can be impacted too. Heavy winds can cause port operators to close, resulting in further expense. Hurricane Harvey closed Port Houston, Texas for six days; ports in Georgia and Florida closed for three days when Hurricane Irma hit. Unfortunately, when one major port closes, it can impact shipping routes all over the world. 

Protecting shipping cargo during hurricane season

How can you avoid costly delays and protect your shipping cargo during hurricane season? Here are a few steps to take. 

• Use data to plan ahead

Dynamic route guidance empowers the shipping company to adjust the route as bad weather systems become more serious, minimizing delays and maximizing safety. Sofar Ocean’s Wayfinder uses the world’s largest fleet of open-ocean weather sensors to integrate real-time observations collected along shipping routes. 

Wayfinder evaluates over 100 million routing options based on the latest weather forecast and business needs, delivering the safest and most profitable route directly to shipmasters and fleet operations staff. Not only does this allow ships to avoid extreme weather, but it also leads to significant fuel savings.  

• Get shipping insurance

Most major shipping companies will have some insurance to protect cargo. However, make sure that your policy has coverage for storms: including flooding, wind, hail — and non-weather eventualities, like shipping delays

“Business interruption coverage is typically not included in ocean cargo or marine policies, but you should review the business interruption insurance provided under your property policy in the context of storm season. Work closely with your insurance brokers to understand what’s covered and what’s not, and adjust accordingly,” noted one insurance company.

• Hire amazing people

The right ship captain can help protect your cargo if the vessel gets caught in a storm. “A canny captain will navigate his vessel to the “low side” of the storm, usually the side anti-clockwise from its leading edge, where wind speeds will be lower and waves will be shallower,” said the UK Chamber of Shipping.

Maneuvering through a storm takes a high level of expertise. Ship captains should keep moving forward with enough power to steer and override the power of wind and waves. And, safety experts recommend keeping the ship’s bow pointed into the waves so the vessel can plow through them safely, preventing waves from striking the ship on its sides. Protecting cargo (and employees) during a hurricane or storm takes a cool head and a certain level of experience. 

• Make the ship as heavy as possible

Many parts of the shipping industry are still recovering from pandemic-induced delays. As a result, some ships may depart only partially filled with cargo to try to catch up to supply chain demands. Shipping companies should avoid letting ships leave before they’re completely full of cargo. 

“The heavier the vessel the better during a hurricane – the most dangerous ship is an empty one. The weight of cargo helps stabilize the ship against the waves. Ballast water alone is not always enough to counteract the ocean’s force upon the ship,” said the UK Chamber

It may sound counterintuitive to load as much cargo as possible into a ship that may encounter a storm: aren’t you putting more cargo at risk and raise insurance costs? However, loading a ship will create better safety conditions as well as help reach decarbonization goals set by the IMO. Fuller ships mean fewer trips — inevitably cutting down on emissions. 

• Stay a safe distance away from ports

This final piece of advice also sounds counterintuitive, but when caught in extreme weather, it’s safer to be at sea. Hurricanes and tropical storms can push vessels up against port infrastructure, risking damage to both the ship and the harbor. The US Coast Guard frequently recommends that all ocean vessels leave ports at least 24 hours in advance of gale-force winds. When it is safe to do so, the port will be able to reopen successfully and begin offloading cargo more efficiently. 

To learn more about mitigating the risks of hurricanes and tropical storms, visit the Sofar Ocean blog

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