The classic board game Battleship involves naval combat vessels being fired upon and sometimes sunk. The famous line for this strategy game is uttered by a losing player who wails, “You sunk my battleship!” The Suez Canal Authority wasn’t concerned about battleships over the last week or so; one, and only one ship, a container ship, occupied its attention. The behemoth vessel was wedged sideways in the canal blocking all maritime traffic through the waterway. A fly on the wall of the Authority’s offices probably heard someone mutter, “You clogged my canal!”
So a ship got stuck in the Suez Canal. What’s the big deal? This problem is catastrophic for commerce. The Suez Canal provides the shortest link from Asia to Europe by connecting the Mediterranean with the Red Sea. Opened in 1869 and expanded in 2015, it is a crucial link for shipping oil, natural gas, and cargo. Around 13% of the world’s trade flows through the Suez Canal, including 7% of the world’s oil. About 50 ships per day pass through the 120-mile canal, including almost 19,000 in 2020. Clog up the commercial pipeline, and the global shipping system is disrupted to the tune of at an estimated loss of up to $10 billion/day or $400 million/hour. I’m no economist, but that indicates lots of red ink in the Red Sea area bleeding all over the world.
How did this shipping catastrophe occur? The bottom line to me, a non-nautical observer, is that a ginormous ship, one the length of the Empire State Building, was being steered down a narrow canal. Besides the colossal size of the container ship, throw into the mix a severe sand storm. Poor visibility and high winds turned the ship sideways resulting in its being lodged diagonally across a southern section of the canal and blocking all traffic in it. Can you say traffic jam? Or would that be ship jam in this case?
The offending ship, the Ever Given (perhaps soon to be renamed the Ever Stuck), had been wending its way along in the Suez Canal on Tuesday, March 23rd at 15 mph when about 45 minutes into this journey disaster struck. The ship’s bow (or front for non-sailors) touched the canal’s eastern wall while its stern (or back) jammed against the western wall. Not only did the skyscraper sized container vessel become stuck, but it also trapped other ships traveling in the canal. Their crews may have experienced canal rage as they impatiently waited for maritime traffic to start flowing again. But it didn’t. For several days.
While efforts were undertaken to free the massive vessel, all traffic through the canal was halted. Ships began lining up in the Mediterranean and Red Seas to enter the waterway. Days later when the ship was successfully refloated, more than 400 ships were waiting to pass through the canal. Experts estimate it could take more than ten days to clear this ship backlog.
The saga of the MV Ever Given is a great opportunity for a geography lesson. The Panama-flagged ship owned by a Japanese company and operated by a shipping firm based in Taiwan was traveling from China to The Netherlands with its crew of 25 Indian nationals. To deliver its cargo to the intended destination, the gargantuan (1/4 mile long) ship was passing through the Suez Canal, a narrow man-made canal dividing the Sinai Peninsula from continental Africa, with the help of a pilot from the Egyptian canal authority. Can you point to all these locations on a globe? (You do have a globe, right?)
To say that the Suez Canal faced a BIG problem with the MV Ever Given is both literally and figuratively correct. Figuratively, the big problem was that a crucial route for shipping, particularly of oil, was unavailable. Literally, a big problem was the sheer size of the ship disrupting use of the waterway. The Ever Given, built in 2018, is counted as one of the biggest cargo ships in the world, able to carry around 20,000 containers at a time. At 224,000 tons, the ship presented a weighty challenge when it became stuck approximately 3.7 miles north of the canal’s southern mouth, a location with only one lane. Moving this behemoth was no small task.
Just how does one unclog a canal? Salvagebusters were summoned who utilized twelve tugboats to push and pull the container ship towering over them. Heave ho! Dredgers also arrived to vacuum sand from around the bottom of the stuck portion of the ship; 30,000 cubic meters of sand, enough to fill a dozen Olympic size swimming pools, were removed. A mega industrial sized vacuum cleaner must have been used. If they had to rely on mine, the ship would be there until the cows came home. And speaking of cows, some were on ships stranded in the canal hoping things would MOO-ve along soon.
While efforts were underway to free the stuck container ship, crews on ships waiting to enter the Suez Canal were forced to re-evaluate their travel plans. They could wait an unspecified period of time for the canal to be unclogged or they could choose to take an alternate route to their destination. Dozens of ships opted for the later option deciding to travel around the Cape of Good Hope, a 3,100 detour, adding two weeks to their journey and extra fuel costs.
Success was achieved on Monday when the Ever Given was released from its stuck state. The dredging, pushing by the tugboats, and a rising spring tide accompanying the full moon combined to allow the ship to be refloated. The tugboat horns tooted in jubilation as the freed ship was escorted toward Great Bitter Lake, a wide stretch of water halfway between the north and south end of the canal, where the vessel could be inspected. Just a guess on my part, but they probably found sand and mud stuck to the ship which was splattered on the Ever Given during dredging–an artificial sandstorm.
Now that the cargo container is free at last, what’s next? The inability to move oil during the week the Ever Given clogged the Suez Canal, I’m betting, will be a reason (excuse?) for the gas prices to be raised. Consumers will ultimately be stuck paying for the navigational errors of a gargantuan ship owned by a greedy shipping company who thought a skyscraper sized vessel in a narrow canal was just the ticket to lining its pockets. Perhaps a rousing game of Battleship will distract me from this galling consequence. At least if I sink a battleship, shipping won’t be impeded and gas prices won’t rise.
Were you aware the Suez Canal was so vital to the shipping industry? Is bigger (as in cargo ships) always better? How ironic is it that a massive ship had to be saved by tiny (in comparison) tugboats?