Surveyors still find vessels with serious corrosion and structural damage despite warnings to owners by international safety groups, led by Lloyd's Register of London. Some owners avoid inspection by using unscrupulous regulatory authorities in the Third World.
So far this year there have been six serious incidents in which three bulk carriers have sunk. Not all sinkings can be blamed on individual owners, but a worrying body of evidence is growing of unsafe practices in the maritime industry and structural faults in the ships.
Bulk carriers, which transport dry cargo, in particular iron ore and coal, are the workhorses of the ocean and designed to survive the worst conditions. In May this year the Great Eagle, a bulk carrier transporting iron ore, sank in the Indian Ocean after its hull mysteriously cracked.
The Karadeniz S was abandoned on 30 March west of Gibraltar after the engine room flooded. The vessel, which was carrying iron ore and was registered in Turkey, sank on 1 April. The 75,000-ton Arisan, built in 1974 and registered in Panama, ran aground off Norway while transporting 133,000 tons of iron ore to the Netherlands. It sank on 12 January after it broke in half.
Some bulk carriers, or 'bulkers', have disappeared without trace in calm water. Up to 1,000 feet long (300 metres) and weighing up to 170,000 tons, they have sunk in less than a minute. A record number of bulk carriers sank in 1991. Thirty-seven per cent of the tonnage lost in that year was bulkers, which make up about a quarter of the world's sea-going tonnage. There have also been more than 200 incidents of carriers being damaged since 1990. Among the ships that sank were vessels managed by British companies carrying cargo to British ports, including Port Talbot.
The Protektor, an 80,000-ton carrier built in 1967, sank off Newfoundland in heavy seas while transporting iron ore. All 33 crew died on 11 January 1990. The crew, mainly Indian and Pakistani, were supplied by Wallem Ship Management, a British company based in Hong Kong. Jacoub Ismael was an officer on the Protektor. His death left his wife Rafia, his mother, and four children in poverty in Karachi, Pakistan. The family says compensation has been agreed, but no money has yet been paid.
The maritime industry started to become aware of the problem with bulkers in 1989. Lloyd's Register, the British classification society that provides ships with an ocean-going 'MoT', issued warnings in 1990 and early 1991 to shipowners and port authorities. The dangers highlighted in the ageing fleet of bulk carriers included corrosion in cargo holds, lack of proper inspections, and damage caused by incorrect loading. Other authorities criticised the use of cheap, poorly trained crews.
A master mariner who worked on bulk carriers for more than five years said: 'Some bulkers should have been sent to the scrap-heap a long time ago. Although there's a much greater awareness of the dangers, it does not mean the number of dangerous vessels has been reduced - they are being nursed along.' He was aware of several classification societies willing to turn a blind eye to substandard bulkers. 'You only have to go to some societies with a bottle of whisky - it works wonders.'
He added that shipowners put pressure on bulk carriers' crew to spend as little time as possible loading and unloading.
The scraping action of cargo grabs, weighing up to 35 tons, and the use of bulldozers to shift ore, have been blamed for weakening vessels' structure. The speed at which the cargo is loaded can also cause strain on the hull. The corrosive effects of chemicals in ore and coal are also believed to play a part in weakening hulls.
A worrying development is the suggestion that the corrosion problems may also be affecting oil tankers. This follows the sinking of the Katin P off the coast of Mozambique in April this year. The 70,000-ton tanker, built in 1966, was damaged in a storm and went down spilling several thousand tons of oil. A naval architect estimated that only 40 per cent strength was left in the deck.
The demand for iron ore and coal has slumped because of the world recession, leaving many owners desperate for business and willing to cut costs. The average age of ships that have been lost is nearly 20 years. A spokesman for the Salvage Association said: 'Shipowners are not earning enough to build new ships, so they are extending the life of vessels which would normally be considered for scrapping.'
Professor Ken Rawson, chairman of the Royal Institute of Naval Architects' safety committee, said: 'The shipowners have a lot of influence because their representatives sit on classification committees and they have a powerful financial clout.'
The International Association of Classification Societies, whose 14 members make up less than a third of societies in the world - although they include all the biggest organisations - is holding an inquiry into the bulk carrier problem. James Bell, the IACS secretary, said its surveyors carried out a major inspection on the carriers once every five years. He said there was no control over organisations that are not members of IACS and this was a cause for concern. 'Some of these organisations are bound to be less scrupulous about their checking procedures and conditions.'
Another method of cutting costs is for owners to register their ships with a country whose rules are less stringent - the 'flag of convenience' ship.
The International Maritime Organisation, the United Nations body which oversees world shipping, is also carrying out an investigation into the problem and recommendations have been made to member countries. A spokesman said: 'In some cases the port operations are still believed to be a major problem, as is corrosion and the sheer age of the fleet.'
None of the recommendations made by Lloyd's Register and the IMO is mandatory.
Among the ships to sink in 1991 were two that were chartered on behalf of British Steel bringing iron ore to Port Talbot. Manila Transporter, a 16-year-old bulker, was abandoned by its Filipino crew after they discovered water in the hold. It sank off Mauritius in July 1991. In August, 26 people died when the Melete, a 16-year- old vessel built in Sunderland, sank 250 miles off Madagascar in the Indian Ocean.
British Steel, which charters 60 per cent of its ships, refused to comment on the two cases. A spokesman said: 'The ship's condition is the responsibility of the supplier. British Steel have asked for quality ships, the suppliers are aware of our concern and what needs to be done.'
Norway, Canada and Australia are so concerned that they have increased the number of inspections. Since January, the Norwegian government's maritime inspection department has detained up to 10 ships after discovering serious structural faults, including rusty hulls, defective lifeboats and corroded steel supports in the cargo holds.
Bruce Farthing, director of Intercargo, an international association which represents owners and managers of more than 1,000 dry bulk carriers, said safety improvements were being made. He pointed to the fall in the number of sunken ships this year as evidence of success. He said: 'One of the problems is there's a tendency for cargo owners to go for the cheapest deal, which can create a vicious circle.'