All at sea—how to avoid unexpectedly sharing the cost if the ship goes down (or simply blocks a waterway).

This edition of Reloverse sounds like a slightly specialist subject. But it affects every assignee sending their personal effects overseas by ocean freight—and the Global Mobility and HR professionals managing their move. The facts and figures often surprise many experts in our sector—so here’s a quick read on what’s involved and how you can mitigate risk simply and successfully.

What is ‘general average’?

It’s something that predates Roman times yet concerns Global Mobility professionals today. It needn’t be costly to cover because the risks are relatively low—but failing to have it as part of your Global Mobility programme could leave you and your assignees exposed to, and liable for, the unexpected on a substantial scale. And you don’t need to look back to the Byzantine Empire of 533AD for proof of concept—just a month ago, the Key Bridge in Baltimore was struck by the 300-metre container ship, Dali, and the owners declared something called ‘general average’. And that’s our subject this week.

Sharing the load

Essentially, the law of general average means losses at sea are shared by the carrier and all cargo owners whether your own personal effects are affected or not. The principle makes sense—in times gone by, crews of clipper ships in severe storms or times of peril had no time to decide what to jettison to save their vessel, so merchants whose cargo landed safely were called on to contribute to make up for the losses of those who had their barrels and boxes thrown overboard so the ship could safely make shore.

A very modern problem

The recent Key Bridge strike is far from a one-off. In 2021 the Suez Canal was closed when one of the largest ships in the world, the Ever Given, became wedged in the waterway. The enormous and still uncertain losses caused by the six-day closure and backlog meant the owners declared general average, forcing individual cargo owners to share the costs of the incident.

Calculating these costs is incredibly complex and can take years. Occasionally, the ship—complete with cargo and personal effects onboard—can be held as security throughout the process, released only when the owner posts a cash payment or bond. Before the Ever Given could even be towed out of the Suez, over half a million Euro had to come from jointly liable donors—to cover salvage expenses, tugboats, damage to port facilities and accommodation for passengers and crew.

Risk and reward

These big events make the national news, but general average is often declared because of more mundane incidents involving poor weather conditions, stranded or grounded ships, fire or machinery failure and modern piracy.

Enhanced protection

Most Global Mobility professionals will use some kind of standard insurance as protection against damage, fire or things lost in transit. But it’s important to check that any policy or liability protection you have includes cover for general average. This means in the event of the unexpected, any deposit guarantees will be covered, and the complex and time-consuming process managed expertly.

But do I need this?

Natasha Edwards, Group Head of Insurance and Claims at Santa Fe is something of a specialist when it comes to ensuring people have precisely the right kind of protection in place. She said “When we buy a new TV, we’re often offered enhanced protection, and anyone leasing a new car will probably be familiar with GAP (guaranteed asset protection) insurance so that if something goes wrong in the first few months we’re covered. Often, we don’t feel compelled to part with small extra premiums as we deem the risk is low and something the retailer is simply trying to oversell us.

Our clients and customers want the most seamless and stress-free moving experience possible, and it’s relatively rare—but things outside our control do go wrong—sometimes on a substantial scale. When it comes to sea freight, the costs involved can be considerable—and if you’re unfamiliar with general average, something of a shock”.

Perfect protection

There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to the right protection. In recent years we’ve witnessed a steady increase in claims caused by mould and mildew due to longer transport times and poor conditions post-Covid at some ports. So finding flexible solutions suited to individual assignees and destination countries is a smart choice. We are also seeing shifts in the number of containers lost at sea, so reviewing your need for enhanced shipment protection and checking that existing cover is fit for purpose should be an annual task to ensure you have the best cover and best value.

Secure, stress-free and seamless

Tailoring the right level of protection depends on the individual assignment and assignee. If you’re looking for an expert partner who understands when you might (and might not) need enhanced liability shipment protection, we would love to support you and your teams. Simply drop an email to and we’ll get back to you.

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