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Accident date
North Sea - TSS Terschelling - German Bight
Spill area
Cause of spill
Weather conditions
Product transported
13, 465 containers, including 3 dangerous goods
Nature of pollutant
280 boxes containing bags filled with a mixture of dibenzoyl peroxide and dicyclohexyl phthalate and 1,400 kg of lithium-ion batteries
Quantity spilled
342 contenairs (including 2 with dangerous goods)
Ship / structure type
Container ship
Built date
South Korea
395 m
59 m
14 m
Xiangxing International Ship Lease Co Ltd
MSC (Mediterranean Shipping Company)
P&I Club
West of England
Classification society
DNV-GL / China Classification Society
IMO number

The incident

On the night of 1st to 2nd January 2019, the container ship MSC Zoe, in force 8 winds, lost containers overboard while travelling through the Terschelling - German Bight Traffic Separation Scheme between Germany and the Netherlands. The two countries carried out joint actions to attempt to locate and recover as many containers and goods as possible, both at sea and on shore. An ancient wreck was discovered during this search.

On 2nd January 2019, container debris and miscellaneous cargo washed up on the shores of the German and Dutch Wadden Islands. These objects and debris were from containers lost overboard on the night of 1st to 2nd January from the container ship MSC Zoe, en route from Sines (Portugal) to Bremerhaven (Germany), carrying 13,465 TEU (Twenty-foot Equivalent Units). The vessel is one of the world’s largest container ships, operating a regular service between Asia and Europe.

The MSC Zoe, in the Terschelling - German Bight Traffic Separation Scheme (TSS) at the time, was caught in force 8 to 9 winds with waves approaching from abeam. The crew felt strong rolling movements. A round to inspect and check the container lashings (in particular 3 containing dangerous goods) was carried out in the afternoon of the 1st.

At around 11 pm, the roll increased to the point of waking the chief officer and causing various items on board (including a printer on the bridge) to fly through the air. The roll then appeared to subside.

At 1 am on the 2nd, a visual inspection with a signal lamp showed that a number of containers had fallen over. Others were hanging overboard. Further investigation was not possible due to the darkness and weather conditions.

At 1:30 am, the roll increased again and the master saw containers collapse and fall overboard. The authorities were alerted and the ship reduced speed and changed course to diminish the influence of the swell and wind. At this stage, the master announced that about thirty containers had fallen overboard.

At daybreak, a tour of inspection was carried out, in particular to locate the containers of hazardous substances. Two of them had fallen overboard, while the third was hanging over the side of the ship. Other containers had also fallen into the sea and the crew observed damage to the lashings, including the tensioners from the lashing rods, twistlocks, hooks and locking pins, etc. Loose parts of the lashings were found on deck. The number of lost containers was re-evaluated several times, finally reaching a total of 270 on the evening of the 2nd. At this stage, the authorities were in possession of the complete cargo manifest but did not know which containers had been lost. The Netherlands Coastguard deployed a guard vessel to redirect traffic towards the north of the TSS.

An action plan to salvage what could be recovered was already being developed and discussed between the salvage company appointed by the ship's insurance company and the Dutch authorities.

At 1 am on the 3rd, the MSC Zoe moored in Bremer-haven. A new inspection was carried out on board by the crew and the German and Dutch authorities. It was still difficult at this stage to determine exactly what had been lost, as some containers still onboard had been completely crushed.

It was not until the final unloading in Gdansk, several days later, that the total number was established: over 1,000 containers were damaged and 342 had fallen overboard, containing 3,200 tonnes of goods according to the cargo manifest.

Only three of them contained hazardous substances. One of these had been carrying 280 boxes containing bags filled with a mixture of dibenzoyl peroxide and dicyclohexyl phthalate, an irritating white powder, but more importantly a powerful oxidant that can undergo violent decomposition at high temperatures (class 5.2). Two full bags (25 kg each) were found on a beach in the Netherlands and were safely recovered. Several empty bags were found in Germany. The container itself was found empty.

The second contained 1,400 kg of lithium-ion batteries (class 9). To our knowledge, it was not found.

Finally, the third container was loaded with 22.5 tonnes of expandable polymeric beads (Industrial Plastic Pellets, IPP). These beads are considered hazardous (class 9) due to the fact that they are manufactured in such a way that they can release pentane (a few percent) during transport, which can generate a flammable atmosphere. This type of bead has already been identified as a cause of major explosions.

These small beads (4 mm in diameter) were immediately found on beaches following the incident. They were then scattered by the wind, making their recovery particularly difficult.


Offshore and onshore operations

The possibility of temporarily closing the shipping lane was considered in the hours following the incident, but this option was quickly abandoned as initial investigations showed that there was no risk of ships hitting sunken stacks of containers.

Immediately after the containers fell overboard, co-operation began between the German and Dutch authorities and the shipowner (via its P&I club). MSC (Mediterranean Shipping Company) appointed the salvage company Ardent to carry out search and recovery operations at sea. The area to be surveyed was enormous, covering around 4,200 km2. Both countries quickly agreed on the geographical areas where search and recovery actions should be carried out.

The first priority was to locate the containers and their debris (many of them had not withstood the force of the elements) as well as various objects that had been released from them. German and Dutch maritime surveillance aircraft (Dornier 228) screened the area.

Searches were also carried out from vessels equipped with multibeam sounders. Initially, search operations focused on the southern lane of the TSS, then were extended to the area between the lane and the coast.

In total, more than 6,000 objects were identified on the seabed and were plotted for each km2. Of course, not all of these objects were from the MSC Zoe and it would not have been conceivable to bring up everything found. Additional observations were made using a ROV equipped with a video camera to attempt to distinguish the debris from the MSC Zoe from other debris.

The objects and debris were then brought to the surface and loaded onto the decks of vessels equipped with cranes and grabs, then transported to a central collection point. A recovery report was drawn up for each identifiable object. On the basis of these reports, Rijkswaterstaat (the Dutch water management agency) was able to identify in which container each object had been carried and where it was placed on board, by cross-checking with the cargo manifest.

Fishermen were also involved in recovery operations through the "Fishing for Litter" programme (see Cedre Information Bulletin n°40).

Debris floating at the surface and subsurface is a risk for navigation. Several trawlers struck floating debris.

Miscellaneous items washed up on the shores of several of the Wadden Islands: containers, container fragments, plastic beads, car parts (wheels, dashboards, etc.), shoes, cushions, clothes, toys, light bulbs, etc. The main islands affected were Vlieland, Terschelling, Schiermonnikoog (Netherlands) and Borkum (Germany). Debris also reached the mainland (Friesland and Groningen in the Netherlands, Lower Saxony in Germany).

In Germany, collection was managed by the municipalities, the Central Command for Maritime Emergencies (Havariekommando, whose role is to ensure coordinated and joint martime emergency management in the North Sea and the Baltic Sea, and was in charge of coordinating clean-up operations), the fire brigade, the sea rescuers and volunteers. Amphibious tracked vehicles were used on the island of Borkum.

In the Netherlands, the emergency services (including the army) were also assisted by many volunteers.

By 4th July 2019, 2,383 tonnes of the 3,200 lost had been recovered, either at sea or on shore. In February 2020, it was estimated that the majority of the goods lost overboard had been found and recovered.

Long-term monitoring of the impacts of the lost goods (especially plastic beads) on this fragile ecosystem (the Wadden Sea is classified as a UNESCO biosphere reserve) has been undertaken.

Une étude a été menée en particulier suite à une surmortalité de guillemots observée en janvier et février 2019 : d’après les estimations, 20 000 guillemots seraient morts, d’abord dans le nord, puis rapidement dans le sud des Pays-Bas. Plusieurs instituts de recherches se sont associés à des centres de soins pour procéder à une séance conjointe de nécropsies : 123 guillemots et 12 pingouins Torda ont été autopsiés. Ces oiseaux sont déclarés morts de faim sans qu'une relation soit établie avec les billes plastiques ou d’autres débris du MSC Zoe.


Incident causes and recommendations

In June 2020, an investigation report entitled "Loss of containers overboard from MSC ZOE, 1-2 January 2019" was published jointly by the Dutch Safety Board, the German Federal Bureau of Maritime Casualties Investigation (BSU) and the Panama Maritime Authority. It is partly based on the analyses and conclusions of the report entitled “Safe container transport north of the Wadden Islands - lessons learned following the loss of containers from MSC Zoe”, also published in June by the Dutch Safety Board.

By comparing the places where the debris and miscellaneous objects were found with the survey carried out by Rijkswaterstaat and the ship's route, the investigators concluded that there had in fact been several episodes of container loss: at each location, the containers and goods found were consistent with groups of containers positioned next to each other on deck. Based on the recovery locations of the lost containers, the report identifies 6 instances of container loss, between 8 pm on 1st January and 1:30 am on 2nd January.

As for the precise causes of these successive losses of containers, the investigators rule out the obsolescence of the vessel (commissioned in 2015, i.e. 4 years before the incident), a lack of qualification, skills and vigilance on the part of the crew, as well as errors at the time of loading or securing the containers. The weather conditions encountered were certainly unfavourable, but neither rare nor particularly extreme for this area.

The Dutch Safety Board called on two research institutes. One (Deltares) modelled the currents, water level, wind and waves encountered by the ship, the other (MARIN) applied these parameters to a model container ship in a test basin.

Meanwhile, BSU worked with the University of Hamburg. The tank tests showed that the ship had indeed been subjected to strong parametric rolling, and due to its intrinsic qualities, notably its very high stability, had quickly recovered its equilibrium position every time, thus subjecting its structures and its load to very strong accelerations and significant forces. This could be what caused the failure of the lashing rods and twistlocks. In the test tank, the ship model hit the bottom due to its own movements but also due to the high amplitude of the waves. Finally, under the test conditions, the waves not only affected the hull but also the rows of containers on deck. The roll period for this type of vessel is very close to the wave periods observed in this area of the North Sea. When the ship is in a beam seas, its movements are therefore amplified.

In the light of these results, the Dutch Safety Board issued a warning to seafarers informing them of these risks, and in particular of the risks of bottom contact (or near contact).

The choice of route (southern rather than northern lane) does not appear to have had a significant impact.

The Port State Control (PSC) inspection carried out in Bremerhaven in January 2020 revealed that several handrails were broken or bent. Lashing bridges were also damaged, as well as fire valves, ventilation openings and several hatches. The hull had a series of minor dents above the waterline.

An underwater inspection was carried out by divers in Gdansk. The survey statement by DNV-GL states that the divers found no damage caused by grounding.

The final recommendations of the joint Dutch-German-Panamanian report focus on the following points:

  • concerning ships: revise existing regulations for container ships, regarding securing equipment but also on stability, especially when sailing in shallow waters; install on board instruments to measure and record in real time the amplitude of roll in order to be able to correct the ship's course but also to be able to investigate any incidents a posteriori; propose solutions to help the crew to detect container losses in real time;
  • concerning the German and Dutch authorities: examine the need to change the location of the existing lanes of the TSS taking into account risk factors and the fact that the Wadden Sea is classified by IMO (International Maritime Organisation) as a Particularly Sensitive Sea Area (PSSA);
  • concerning MSC: seek a better design and instrumentation of future container ships;
  • concerning the World Shipping Council and the International Chamber of Shipping: communicate on the subject and promote innovation in terms of ship design and equipment.


Discovery of objects from previous incidents

The search operations conducted at sea led to the discovery of unrecorded wrecks, as well as explosives dating from the Second World War.

More surprisingly, copper plates and wooden beams were found in Dutch waters. The plates bore the mark of the Fugger family, German bankers and merchants.

An archaeological investigation revealed that these remains came from a 30-metre ship, built in around 1540 (the trees used for its construction were felled in 1536), making it the Netherland’s oldest wreck to date.



See also

Feature: containers, Cedre information bulletin, 2021, n° 41

External links

Information from Havariekommando on: dangerous goods, the impact of benzoyl peroxide on the marine environment, the contents of floating containers, cargo securing, wrecks ...

Pictures of the loss of containers at the Havariekommando website

BSU, Federal Bureau of Maritime Casualties Investigation, Germany

Dutch Safety Board, The Netherlands

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