2021 was a year that brought us no shortage of dramatic images. But for anyone who worked in the logistics sector, the one that really stuck in the mind’s eye was the Ever Given Ship, one of the largest container ships in the world, effectively ringing global shipping to a standstill as it blocked the Suez Canal for almost a week.
Plenty of water has flowed under the bridge - and through the canal - since the Ever Given ship was refloated. But as it successfully negotiated the Suez again last month for the first time since the March 2021 incident, the question is begged whether a repetition of the incident is any less likely today if the same circumstances arise.
What happened to the Ever Given Ship?
Before we try to answer that question, it is worth reminding ourselves exactly what happened in March 2021. Ever Given is an example of the new breed of megaships and is one of the largest container vessels ever built. At 400 metres long, she is right at the upper limit of what is permitted to traverse the Suez Canal.
On 21 March 2021, Ever Given was in the process of traveling through the Suez. It was the 23rd time the vessel had made the journey, one described as a “very complex and high risk operation” by one former captain and current Maritime College lecturer due in part to the relatively narrow passage in certain parts and also due to the propensity for sudden gusts of wind that can quickly push a large vessel off course.
The thing about the Suez Canal is that it has remained fundamentally unchanged since it opened in 1869. It is fair to surmise that incredible achievement though it was, it was not created with a vision of the megaships that would be coming through 150 years in the future. So it is that significant portions of the canal are “one way” only. Vessels have to await their turn and then travel through in convoys, much like modern vehicles negotiating remote mountain passes designed for ponies.
Through the entirety of their journey along the Suez, ships are guided by a pilot, and for vessels with a gross tonnage of more than 80,000, such as the Ever Given ship, two pilots are mandatory. Unlike pilots in the Panama Canal, however, the pilots do not take control of the vessel. It remains in the hands of its crew, with the pilots providing advice and guidance.
On this particular morning, the Ever Given ship was negotiating one of the narrow sections on its south to north journey from Malaysia to Rotterdam. It was the fifth in a convoy of 20 vessels, with four travelling ahead and 15 behind it. Two pilots were onboard as required.
Problems arose in the form of a sandstorm and strong winds, upon which the crew reported that the ship became “impossible to steer.” Experts have previously reported that gusts can cause the containers to “act like a sail” and send ships off course, although the Suez Canal Authority (SCA) were quick to say that what followed was due more to technical issues and human error than to weather conditions. Either way, the result was the same - the Ever Given ship found itself aground at one of the narrowest points in the canal, entirely obstructing it diagonally with its bow and stern embedded in opposite banks.
The incident happened at a time when the Suez Canal had never been busier. Trade was just beginning to recover after the pandemic. On a typical day, at least 50 ships pass through the waterway, but last year saw those numbers escalate. Indeed, one day last September set a new record of 87 in a single day.
The economic and logistical consequences of the Ever Given blocking the Suez for six days can, therefore, be well imagined. There are few things that shipping companies enjoy more than filing claims, and around 300 vessels had their voyages delayed. Among these were 24 crude oil tankers, 41 bulk carriers and even the Ever Given’s sister ship, the Ever Greet. Then there would be losses resulting from delays to its own cargo and an inevitable claim from the SCA for loss of revenue.
As well as the financial losses, it was reported that one salvage worker lost his life during the operation, although full details have not been made public. There were also rumors of significant loss of livestock, with some sources reporting that between 150,000 and 200,000 animals died in horrendous conditions due to running out of food and drinking water during the delay.
It took a week to get the Ever Given ship back underway, but no sooner was she removed from the bottleneck than she was seized by the Egyptian authorities pending payment of the SCA’s compensation demand, which came in at almost $1 billion. In July settlement was agreed with the SCA at an undisclosed sum believed to be in the region of $550 million and the Ever Given could finally complete her journey.
However, the legal and economic consequences are still playing out and will continue to do so between shippers, lawyers and insurers for years to come. The question we must ask from an operational perspective is what lessons we can take away from the Ever Given incident and how we can avoid it happening again.
There’s no real substitute for the Suez
Perhaps it does us all good to have a reminder every 50 years or so in one way or another, but the Suez Canal is vital to our entire global shipping network. The parallel might sound over the top, but blocking it is like blocking an artery to the heart, and the effects can be catastrophic to global trade.
The trouble is, there is no real alternative. Again, this shouldn’t be big news to anyone. The topography of North Africa has not undergone material change between the mid 19th century and now. If there was an easy alternative to the 120-mile canal, it seems quite clear that they would not have spent a decade creating it in the 1850s and 60s.
When the Ever Given ran aground, most of the almost 400 ships affected simply sat and waited. A few ships chose to go the long way, around the Cape of Good Hope. The problem with that is it adds around 10 days to the journey time, and at today’s prices, that could add around $0.5 million in fuel costs alone for a good sized container ship.
Russia also took the opportunity to at least try to find a positive out of the crisis, promoting its Russian Arctic route to the north. That certainly looks a more attractive solution on paper, and for certain routes, it could be even shorter than the Suez Canal. However, ice makes the route even more hazardous than the Suez for most of the year. There are also the obvious political risks and complications, especially in the current climate, as much of the route is thorough Russian waters.
Making the Suez fit for purpose in the 21st century
Evaluating the alternatives only brings us back full circle to the inescapable conclusion that the Suez is as essential to global shipping today as it was 150 years ago.
The SCA has been eager to dismiss the Ever Given ship incident as a freak event. Sure, vessels do occasionally run aground, they argue, but incidents are usually resolved in a matter of hours and the costs and delays are minimal. That logic breaks down when you look at how shipping is evolving.
Vessels like the Ever Given are becoming the norm. In fact, even as the recovery crews were working to dislodge the stricken vessel, its owners, Ever Green, were busy placing an order for some even larger ones, which are currently under construction.
The Suez Canal is rapidly becoming the shipping equivalent of the Monaco Grand Prix - a race run on a circuit created in 1929 for racing cars of the 1920s, but completely inappropriate for the size and speed of today’s Formula 1 cars. But what can be and is being done?
Suez Canal Expansion
Expanding the Suez is obviously the ideal solution. Not only will it reduce the risk of a similar incident, but it will also ease the bottlenecks, increase capacity and go some way towards future proofing the Suez. After all, who knows what logistics will look like in another 150 years? The likelihood is that sea freight will still be an important part of the mix and the ships will make the Ever Given look like a rowing boat.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, but there is currently a $200 million project in progress to extend the two-way section by 10KM. Dredging operations are currently underway and the whole project should be completed by June 2023. The object of this project is to improve safety and increase capacity. It is not envisaged that this particular project will shave anything off the current 11 hour transit time from one end of the canal to the other.
All these months on, after all the enquiries, investigations and expert witness reports, it is still not clear who, if anyone, is primarily accountable for the Ever Given ship incident. The closest anyone has come to mud slinging was an SCA representative’s post-lunch style comment that someone or something was accountable, and that it wasn’t just a case of bad luck in bad weather.
To be honest, this poses more questions than it answers.
- Who has ultimate responsibility for navigation within the Suez Canal, the crew or the pilots?
- If the crew, what authority do the pilots have?
- Should the SCA operate in the same way as the Panama Canal, with all navigation completely handed over to the pilots?
- What weather assessments are made? Should crossings be halted, or at least restricted, during bad weather?
Most investigations took place behind closed doors, but one allegation that has repeatedly aired is that in the minutes leading up to the accident, the Master was at loggerheads with the visiting pilots as to the correct course of action. Resolving these questions of accountability is not just about apportioning blame when something has gone wrong. It is also of critical importance in having a ship that is being operated according to the best possible practices.
Mr Mohamed El Wakeel is a former merchant captain, and now works as a lecturer in business studies at the Arab Academy for Science, Technology & Maritime Transport in Cairo. He also serves as a consultant for the SCA and says the Authority has already put corrective measures in place.
These measures include the upgrade of salvaging equipment, which was found to be substandard for meeting modern demands. In addition, training protocols are being updated and strengthened through simulation exercises so that pilots are able to confidently deal with a wide range of situations.
A vital artery
If the Ever Given ship incident has taught us one thing it is that the Suez Canal is a vitally important trade artery and without it, repercussions are felt across global freight lines and supply chains. Every year, around 12 percent of global trade and 30 percent of container traffic traverses the Suez Canal, carrying goods valued at more than $1 trillion.
The incident also highlighted the fragility of this artery and how easily this trade route can be brought to a grinding halt. While measures are underway to reduce bottlenecks in the Suez Canal, there remain doubts as to whether these are sufficient in this age of ever-larger container ships. Time will tell, but it could take another Ever Given type incident to compel stakeholders to plough in the scale of investment that is needed to truly future proof the Suez Canal.