How A Massive 200,000-Tonne Cargo Ship Got Stuck in the Suez Canal
On March 23, the 200,000-tonne cargo ship Ever Given ran aground – spectacularly – in the Suez Canal. Not only did the ship do the main thing ships aren’t supposed to do, but it managed to wedge itself from end to end across the canal, blocking any other ships from transport. For a full week, the Ever Given captivated the world’s attention. From people on Twitter who would not in any way be affected by the crisis, to people on Twitter who had a chance of slightly being affected by the crisis, everyone was on the edge of their seats.
On Monday, March 29, the ship was finally freed and sent off to be inspected. And with many of us now left with a ship-shaped hole in the Suez Canal of our hearts, one important question has to be asked – how cool was that, right? And then immediately after: what happened?
The most interesting and important question is unfortunately also the hardest to answer: why? Unfortunately, investigations are still in progress. Just this past Tuesday, the ship’s black box was retrieved, so we only have crumbs of evidence to go on. On the same day the ship ran aground, the shipping agent GAC Egypt posted, and then quickly deleted, that the ship had lost power. Later that day, a follow-up from the Suez Canal Authority posted that the ship had experienced “high winds and sandstorms.” As the Ever Given is now being inspected in the Great Bitter Lake, investigators aren’t ruling out any possibilities. It should be noted that the Ever Given’s last recorded speed before running aground was several knots above the canal’s speed limit, pointing to potential human error.
Often during these global crises there’s an air of empathy in the discourse around it; due empathy for those impacted, thoughts and prayers, etc. But the rescue of Ever Given was more akin to the rescue of one massive, apathetic Chilean miner who refuses to tell you how they got stuck. The first few days were characterized by total failure. As images of the ship circulated the internet and the crisis became mainstream, the Egyptian government tried and failed to use tugboats, dredgers, and tidal movements to refloat the Ever Given. Eventually, the solution was found in digging away at the walls of the canal that constrained the massive ship. The now-famous excavator, tiny in comparison to the Ever Given, was one of many that moved 30,000 cubic meters of sand in an effort to eventually free the ship from the canal. Of course, saving the Ever Given was only the beginning, as now the work begins on the 450 ship backlog waiting at the entrance of the canal.
There are a number of global ramifications to be considered as this crisis leaves the collective conscious. For one, this has been an incredible show of strength for Egypt’s authoritarian strongman leader, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi. For all the comical value of a giant ship stuck in the Suez Canal, Egypt has fully embraced the global attention and emphasized their crisis response. The shutdown of the Suez Canal halted an estimated $8 billion of global trade a day, which was already strained by the coronavirus pandemic. For reference, that’s about 4% of Jeff Bezos’s net worth every day (or about as much as it takes to pay for two tuitions at Reed College, maybe three if the students live off-campus). The product expected to be most affected is crude oil, though some experts disagree on to what extent.
As for the fate of the vessels scheduled to pass through after the Ever Given? During the crisis, they all docked on the other end of the canal. As if they hadn’t learned their lesson, after the Ever Given was refloated, the Suez allowed an abnormal amount of traffic as ships that had waited to pass went through. In 2020, the canal allowed an average of 51 ships to pass through per day. After the ship was refloated, 140 passed through overnight. Additionally, more delays are expected as the week continues, and the European ports the ships are headed to aren’t prepared to receive that much cargo. Some estimate that the effects of the closure of the canal will be relevant for weeks to come, as the disruption of global commerce ripples out onto the rest of the world. In a few year’s time, you may hear word of the lawsuits many companies plan to file as a result of the delays. As of right now, the traffic in the canal itself is back to a normal level, but don’t let that calm you – clearly the canal has proven that under normal circumstances, a single point of failure can still delay and disrupt much of the world’s economy.