At a very basic level, stowage coordination is the practice of determining, where on a vessel, containers should be loaded to allow for the optimal load and discharge of that vessel. It should take into account considerations for the ports in the rotation, the number of ports in the rotation, the correct segregation of the cargo, the number of cranes required and the overall vessel stability. Of course, the reality of stowage coordination is much more complex than this implies.
Stowage is a giant puzzle that needs to be solved. The difference between stowage and an actual puzzle is that there is no one single end result to stowage. There are numerous combinations that can be applied to solve the puzzle and none of them can be described as truly correct or incorrect. Every scenario will have positive and negative aspects to it, often depending on what the stowage coordinator is trying to achieve with this particular stow. The other aspect is that this is a never ending puzzle in that it does not even really have an end result, just steps along the way. Very rarely do container ships completely discharge and then re-load. Container ships usually operate in a never ending loop of port calls. At every port, some containers will be discharged, some more will be loaded. The puzzle has many different solutions but rarely does it have an end goal.
Due to the dynamic nature of container shipping operations, there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to stowage. Every service, often every port and/or vessel, will have differing requirements and restrictions that affect the stowage. What works well for one particular stow may not work at all for another. What makes stowage coordination particularly challenging to teach is that it is unusual to have one answer to any question. More often than not, the answer to a particular stowage question will be ‘it depends’. Accurate, but unhelpful.
The best way to look at stowage is to break it down into its individual components. There are quite clear rules for each specific aspect of stowage, such as hazardous cargo segregation, and it is then up to the stowage coordinator to look at the stowage he or she is currently trying to solve and then apply the solutions that work this time. It’s rather like a ‘stowage toolbox’. Not every tool will fit every problem but there is a solution to everything. Ultimately, if nothing in the toolbox will work then restowing containers will solve everything. It’s not an elegant solution and it comes at a cost but it is always there as a backup.
What should be remembered about stowage is that virtually every decision that the stowage coordinator makes comes down to a trade off or compromise. If I make ‘this’ decision, what effect will ‘that’ have elsewhere? Often, a good stowage is about coming up with the solution that has the least negative effect on something else.
What makes stowage even more complex is that the coordinator is often having to work with a combination of actual information, forecast information and experience. This is the main reason that stowage is still quite a manual ‘thought based’ process. Container shipping is simply too dynamic to have 100% (or even close to) accurate forecasts which means that the even the best automated stowage system in the world is currently still no match for the human brain.
While these notes do not aim to cover every topic in stowage, they do aim to cover some of the least explained topics. There are some very good books available that explain ship stability, ship construction and hazardous cargo stowage, plus the IMDG code so I will not go into those in much detail, but there is very little available about how stowage works, crane intensity and how stowage interacts with terminal operations. That is what I will focus on in these blog posts.