Washed Overboard

By Helen Butcher

container ship on the ocean

Approximately 90% of worldwide cargo travels by sea and it’s easy to overlook the convenience of a container that can be shifted between truck, train, and ship. Although lashed down by cables, the containers on deck can, and do, occasionally fall overboard. But just how many and what happens to them? Estimates suggest that up to 10,000 containers are lost from cargo ships in storms every year, around 10% of them carrying harmful substances and toxins. The World Shipping Council commissioned their own nine-year research study and suggest the figure to be around 600 containers. But with no formal reporting or accountability system in place, there is no actual figure.

Most containers that are lost will sink, although it can take months to do so. They are generally not entirely watertight, and an undamaged full container will likely float until the air trapped within the cargo has escaped. Refrigerated containers are often buoyed by their insulation and drift for longer. Until they do sink, these low floating shipping containers create a hazardous obstacle for other ships.

map of ocean currents

World map of sea currents

Some spills however, have provided a unique opportunity for study and revolutionized the understanding of ocean currents. Uncomfortable lessons have also been learned along the way about the longevity of plastic in our oceans, the damage it can cause to marine life and ecosystems, and the sheer amount floating around, trapped in areas such the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Flotsam is the name given to the wreckage of a ship or its cargo, floating or washed ashore by the sea. Not deliberately thrown overboard, it is the result of a shipwreck or accident. The word derives from the French word “floter,” to float. Jetsam is the debris that is purposefully disposed of overboard—often to lighten a ships load when in distress. Jetsam is a shortened word for “jettison.”

The Great Sneaker Spill (1990)

On May 27, 1990, a fierce storm struck the container ship The Hansa Carrier as it travelled between Korea and the United States. Twenty-one 40-foot cargo containers tore loose and plunged into the Pacific Ocean, 500 miles south of the Alaska Peninsula. Five of the containers contained 61,000 expensive Nike sports shoes, each labelled with a unique serial number.

cargo spill of sneakers

Barry Tweed on Indian Beach, Oregon, wearing Nikes from the 1990 spill

Later in the year, brand-new Nike shoes began washing up along the coast of Oregon, and then British Colombia and Washington, matching the serial numbers of the lost containment. Luckily, Nike tracks its products so meticulously that single shoes can be traced to a single container. This showed that four of the five containers belonging to Nike had burst open. The shoes were in surprisingly good condition after sloshing around for many months in the stormy seas. It was discovered that they float sole up—with the uppers protected underwater from the sun and pecking birds, and after a quick bleach wash were as good as new.

Lively markets developed on the beaches by enterprising locals—“meet and match” days were held to exchange right and left shoes, sizes, and styles, and many pairs were sold. Another ten months later, in the summer of 1992, they started arriving in Hawaii with a similar welcome response. The contents of the other 16 containers were never recovered—but the Nike spill inadvertently created the greatest windfall of free data in the history of oceanography.

illustration of cargo containers in the water

Deadly and Dangerous (1992)

Inadequately secured cargo was cited as the cause of the deadliest spillage, when the Santa Clara lost 21 containers, 30 nautical miles off the coast of Cape May, New Jersey, in January 1992. Four of the containers lost were filled with drums of highly toxic arsenic—enough lethal doses to poison half of the United States. Due to the heavy weather and thick fog, the ship’s crew had not even been aware that any cargo was missing until their arrival at Delaware Pilot Pickup Station, when the new pilot queried the container hanging precariously off the port side.

A massive air and sea search was conducted by the Coast Guard to retrieve the missing drums, and 320 were eventually located and brought to the surface using remotely operated vehicles.

The day after the incident, when the Santa Clara arrived at the port of Baltimore, the decks were covered in the lethal powder. Meanwhile, the crew had been hospitalized with breathing difficulties, which was explained when a second hazardous chemical was discovered during the clean-up operation. Not included on the ships manifest, magnesium phosphide, a poison which produces dangerous vapors when wet, covered the floor of the hold several inches deep. An isolated anchorage was found for the massive decontamination process to begin.

rubber ducky on the beach

The World’s Biggest Duck Race (1992)

On January 6, 1992, the 29,000-ton, 650-foot-long cargo ship, the Ever Laurel, departed from Hong Kong destined for Tacoma, Washington. Around the halfway point on January 10, the ship encountered a violent storm with hurricane force winds and 10-meter-high waves. Twelve containers were lost overboard—one famously containing 28,800 children’s bath toys. Manufactured in China, the plastic toys were due to be distributed by The First Years Inc. Company. A news report looking to give the story a nickname asked for suggestions and they became known as “Friendly Floatees.”

The yellow ducks, red beavers, blue turtles, and green frogs were packaged as a set of four in cardboard boxes. The container broke open and the cardboard quickly disintegrated. As they had no holes—unlike most bath toys—they made an extremely buoyant flotilla. These little plastic creatures were about to create a splash in the media, and the world’s biggest duck race had started.

Ten months after the incident, the first Friendly Floatees began to appear on the Alaskan coast—10 toys were found by a beachcomber in Sitka, now 2,000 miles from their starting point.

plastic animal cargo spill

Oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer with flotsam, including Friendly Floatees

Curtis Ebbesmeyer, an oceanographer who models ocean currents based on flotsam movements, took interest—he was already tracking trainers from the Nike container spill of 1990. His friend Jim Ingraham created a computer simulation to forecast when the toys would be washing ashore in Washington and the prediction proved to be accurate. They continued to track the floating animals for the next two decades.

Alerts were sent to beachcombers and lighthouse keepers the world over to report sightings and hundreds more were tracked down, appearing in Hawaii, Japan, and other Asian countries. Many are thought to have spent up to six years trapped in Arctic Ice, moving eastwards at around a mile per day, before eventually thawing in the melt water of the North Atlantic and continuing their journey. In 2001, they were found floating right over the area where the Titanic sank and have since turned up in some far-flung locations like Australia, Indonesia, and the west coast of South America. One toy frog found in Scotland in 2007 was believed to be genuine, but no others have been reported found in the U.K. It is thought that many may be trapped in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, a huge circulating ocean current, and if so, will never make landfall.

The toys have become extremely collectible, commanding high prices. At one stage, First Years Inc., offered a reward of $100 each for their return, if found in New England, Canada, or Iceland.

In case you want to check yours, they are around 5 centimeters high and stamped with “The First Years.” Bleached by the sun and salt water, the ducks and beavers have faded to white, while the turtles and frogs have kept their original colors.

ice hockey gloves

Fire and Ice Hockey Gloves (1994)

In December 1994, a fire broke out in the engine room of the Hyundai Seattle and although extinguished successfully, the ship had lost power and was at the mercy of the 40-foot seas and gale force winds. The crew were evacuated, and the abandoned ship was adrift for 15 days near the International Date Line, during which time 49 of its 726 containers broke loose and spilled into the ocean.

A container holding 34,000 ice hockey gloves, chest protectors, and shin guards was one of the casualties and soon they began to wash up in Washington, California, and finally Hawaii. Interestingly, it was discovered that right-handed hockey gloves take a completely different path through the ocean currents to left-handed hockey gloves.

lego container spill

Lego Lost at Sea (1997)

The Japanese cargo ship named The Tokio Express was travelling from Rotterdam (in the Netherlands) to New York on February 13, 1997, when it was struck by a freak wave 20 miles west of Lands End. The Captain described the wave as a “once in 100-year phenomenon,” tilting the ship 60 degrees one way and then 40 degrees back. 62 containers were lost overboard, including one that contained 4,756,940 pieces of plastic Lego, many of which were light enough to float. Shortly after, the Lego pieces began washing up on Cornish beaches, and two decades later they still keep on coming.

Ironically, most of the pieces are nautically themed, and included spear guns, seaweed, cutlasses, scuba gear, and flippers. The holy grail of Lego hunters, however, is a dragon or an octopus. Even after over two decades at sea most pieces look as if they could be brand new. You can read more about the lost Lego in Lost at Sea: The Sunken Cargo of the Tokio Express.

The Cornish beaches of Tregantle, Perranporth, and Marazion are some of the top Lego hunting hot spots, but it is possible to find it hidden in piles of microplastics on any of the county’s beaches, and also those in neighboring Devon.

The Manifest includes:

  • Diver flippers (red, blue and black) 418,000
  • Daisy flowers (white, red and yellow) 353,264
  • Scuba and breathing apparatus (grey) 97,500
  • Life preserver (yellow) 26,600
  • Ships rigging net (brown) 26,400
  • Spear guns (red and yellow) 13,000
  • Dragons (black and green) 33,941
  • Octopuses (black) 4,200

Tracey Williams, a lifelong beachcomber, started collecting and documenting the Lego she and her children found on the beach and later created a Facebook page with a massive following of people sharing their finds. She now uses the Twitter account @LegoLostAtSea. Her book, Adrift: The Curious Tale of the Lego Lost at Sea chronicles the story. 

cargo ship lyme bay

MSC Napoli aground in Lyme Bay, Dorset, England, on July 20, 2007, Adrian Pingstone.

Jurassic Scavengers (2007)

Serious shipping incidents are rare within U.K. waters, but the MSC Napoli is particularly memorable. The 62,000 ton container ship ran into difficulties in the English Channel on the January 18, 2007. She had been en route from Antwerp, Belgium, to Durban, South Africa, with 2,300 containers and 3,800 tons of oil. She ran into a ferocious storm, although underlying structural issues with the ship were also later discovered. 80 containers washed ashore on Dorset’s famous Jurassic coast—a beautiful World Heritage Coastline.

News quickly spread and groups of combers gathered to scour the debris for merchandise. After initially tolerating a salvage free-for-all, the police were forced to shut the beach at Branscombe and threatened to use ancient laws to force people to return goods that had not been reported to the relevant authority—the Receiver of Wreck. Scavenged goods included 17 BMW motorcycles, vodka, barrels of wine, diapers, perfume, car engines, explosives, dog biscuits, and frozen ducks. The dog biscuits proved particularly effective at soaking up some of the 302 tons of oil that was spilled and had spread for 5 miles. Later, in October 2007, conscientious salvagers who had reported their finds to the Receiver of Wreck were told they may keep what they had found. The salvage operation took two and a half years to complete and cost in excess of 120 million pounds, or almost 250 million dollars.


The Tjipetir Mystery

Over the past few years, mysterious solid rectangular blocks have been appearing on beaches in the U.K. and Northern Europe. The size of a large chopping board, the blocks are stamped with the letters TJIPETIR, the name of a Gutta Percha (rubber-like tree gum) plantation in Indonesia. Thought to have been lost cargo from a ship almost a century ago, the Titanic was even suggested as one of the possible sources after checks of the ship’s cargo manifest confirmed that it had been carrying 100 slabs of Gutta Percha. Cornish beachcomber Tracey Williams started a Facebook page after finding two herself, and more and more people came forward everyday with their own Tjipetir discoveries. Far more than 100 had now been found and the Titanic theory seemed unlikely.

After years of research by Tracey, it is now thought that the source of the blocks is the wreck of the Miyazaki Maru, a Japanese ocean liner carrying cargo and passengers and sunk by a German submarine in May 1917. The British Government’s Receiver of Wreck, Alison Kentuck, who presides over wreck and salvage laws within the U.K., agrees that her research also points to the Liner, lying 150 miles off the Cornish Isles of Scilly. It was discovered that a salvage operation had recently been undertaken on the wreck, which may have released the buoyant Gutta Percha pieces.

Pre-dating plastic but with an incredible resilience to water, Gutta Percha had a wide range of uses—items like hot air balloons, fire hoses, golf balls, tooth fillings, jewelry, and toys. In the 19th and first half of the 20th century, it was also used to insulate undersea telegraph cables. So, although a biodegradable and natural material, lots of the blocks have hardly degraded at all after their lengthy time at sea.

Learn more about beach-found toys and games

toys and game pieces found on the beach

Learn more about marbles, dominos, dice, toy vehicles, and more found on  beaches around the world. Articles ›

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This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine March/April 2021 issue.

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