June 16. 2021. 8:05

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Suez Canal blockage brings costly lesson in sea trade vulnerabilities

A man waving the Egyptian flag after Panama-flagged MV ‘Ever Given’ container ship was fully dislodged from the banks of the Suez. Photograph: Suez Canal Authority/AFP via Getty Images


For six days, billions of dollars’ worth of international commerce sat paralysed at either end of the Suez Canal, stalled thanks to a single giant container ship apparently knocked sideways by a powerful southerly wind.

The ship’s insurers and the canal authorities summoned the largest tugboats in the canal, then two even larger ones from farther afield. They deployed diggers, front-end loaders and specialised dredgers to guzzle sand and mud from where the ship was lodged at both ends. They called in eight Dutchmen from the world’s most respected maritime salvage team.

Day and night, with international pressure bearing down, the dredgers dredged and the tugboats tugged. But not until the seventh day, after the confluence of the full moon and the sun conjured an unusually high tide, did the ship wriggle free with one last heave shortly after 3pm, allowing the first of the roughly 400 ships waiting at either end of the canal to resume their journeys by Monday evening.

In the aftermath of one of the most consequential shipping accidents in history, the global supply chain industry will have a cascade of costly delays to contend with and much to assess: the size of container ships, the width of the Suez Canal, the wisdom of relying on just-in-time manufacturing to satisfy consumer demand around the world, and the role, if any, of human error.

But some things were out of anyone’s hands: If the wind and the tide might not be deemed acts of God by the insurance companies, they were a reminder that 21st-century commerce remains subject to random acts of nature. “We’ve all seen the pictures and thought, ‘How on earth does that happen?’” said Emily Hannah Stausboll, a shipping analyst at BIMCO, a large international shipping association. “People in the industry are asking: Could it happen again? And if so, what do we do to avoid it happening for another week next time?”

How it happened will be the province of teams of inspectors and investigators who were set to begin work after the now-unstuck container ship, the Ever Given, motored under its own power Monday evening into the Great Bitter Lake, north of where it had been marooned since running aground amid a sandstorm last Tuesday morning.

Because the ship sails under a Panamanian flag, Panama will handle the investigation unless Egypt exercises its right to take over, though international pressure for a more thorough accounting could result in the US National Transportation Safety Board stepping in, said Captain John Konrad, who founded gCaptain.com, a maritime news site.

Fault

The Egyptians have already reached one conclusion, investigation or no. “The Suez Canal is not at fault,” Lt Gen Osama Rabie, the head of the canal authority, said at a news conference on Monday night. “We have been harmed by the incident.” Early on, the ship’s owner and operator blamed the wind, and maritime experts agreed that it had been a factor, perhaps the deciding one, as gusts pushed against the vertical wall of containers piled high atop the Ever Given as if against a sail. But Lt Gen Rabie also suggested over the weekend that human or technical error may have come into play.

Under standard procedures, two Egyptian canal pilots would have boarded the ship before it entered the canal to help it navigate, experts said, though the ship’s captain would have retained final authority. A reconstruction of the ship’s movements through the narrow section of the canal north of the port of Suez shows the Ever Given weaving back and forth from one side of the canal to the other almost as soon as it entered the channel, gathering speed until the 224,000-ton ship topped 13 knots (24km/h) .

While it is not yet known what caused the Ever Given to start bouncing around the waterway, once it did, it succumbed to what is known in seafaring as the bank effect. That is a phenomenon in which the stern of a ship tends to swing toward one bank while its bow is pushed away from it, said Capt Paul Foran, a maritime consultant who as a ship’s captain navigated the Suez Canal 18 times.

Capt Foran said that whoever was giving orders most likely tried to regain control over the ship by putting on speed. But that decision would have made matters worse, robbing the crew of its usual manoeuvring tools. Bow thrusters that could push the bow left or right stop working at high speeds; the faster a ship goes, the lower the pressure beneath the hull, sinking the vessel dangerously low in the water.

“The faster you go, the less control you have,” he said, “and on a ship that size, once she gets out of control like that, it gets even more difficult to bring her under control.” Investigators will use audio from the ship’s voice recorder and tracking data to piece together what combination of commands, and by whom, spelled ruin. But the result was clear: a ship the length of four football fields, wedged diagonally across a vital canal much narrower than four football fields, at a time when global shipping could ill afford further disruption after a year of havoc brought on by the pandemic.

Pressure

As analysts warned that the Ever Given was blocking nearly €8.5 billion in consumer goods per day, the queue of waiting ships grew and the internet memes about the epic traffic jam piled up, the Suez Canal Authority and the ship’s owner and insurer scrambled tugboats and dredging equipment to the scene. By the day after the grounding, they had called in a highly regarded team of salvage experts from Smit Salvage, a Dutch company.

“The time pressure to complete this operation was evident and unprecedented,” Peter Berdowski, chief executive of Royal Boskalis Westminster, Smit’s parent company, said in a statement on Monday.

Working day and night as the tugboats pulled on the ship, the dredgers cleared away about 30,000 cubic metres of sand and mud from around the ship’s bow and stern, Mr Boskalis said. There was also talk of removing containers from the ship to lighten it, an operation that would have required the extra headache of cranes on barges and possibly heavy-duty helicopters, but that proved unnecessary in the end.

Salvage crews kept a schedule largely dictated by the tides: working to make progress during the six hours it would take for the water to rise from low point to high.

A full moon on Sunday, culminating in a spring tide on Monday, gave the crews an especially promising 24-hour window to work in, with a few extra inches of water providing the assist. By Monday morning’s high tide, the ship was partially floating again, its stern freed.

Until then, the ship’s belly was sagging between its pinned-up bow and stern, causing analysts to worry that its hull would crack under the stress. When the stern swung free without incident, Konrad said, it relieved the pressure on the centre, raising the odds the ship would go on to float again without further complications.

“It’s miraculous they did it with no pollution and no injuries,” he said. “Everything kind of went to plan.” But it was several more hours of anticipation and conflicting reports, the Dutch cautious, the Egyptians prematurely triumphant before the ship was wrenched loose. Horns blared in celebration as images emerged on social media of the ship, for so long diagonal, once again parallel with the canal. Then even the Dutch exulted. “We pulled it off!” Mr Berdowski said.

President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi of Egypt celebrated the moment on Twitter, writing that “Egyptians have succeeded today in ending the crisis of the stuck ship in the Suez Canal despite the great complexities surrounding this situation in every aspect.”

Ms Stausboll said that the authorities’ often overly rosy projections during the past week left many shipowners confused about what to believe. “A lot in the shipping community would wish there had been more clarity about what was going on in Egypt from the authorities,” she said. “It does harm your reputation.”

In the absence of a faster, cheaper option, however, the Suez Canal will remain a key artery for shippers, she said. And she pointed out that most ships, including large ones, have navigated the canal without incident in the past.

Shippers have, in any case, a more pressing concern: how to resolve the chain reaction of delays that may ripple out for weeks or months even after the Suez backlog clears, as it was beginning to do by Monday night. The first ship to pass through the canal after the Ever Given got out of the way was the YM Wish, a 1,207-foot-long Hong Kong-flagged container ship that exited the canal at about 9.15pm. If there is schadenfreude among ships, the YM Wish was perhaps not feeling it. VesselFinder.com reported the YM Wish ran aground in the Elbe River in Germany only six years ago. In its case, however, it took less than a day to float again.