01 May 2021

Navigating the Suez Canal

 "Ships are safe in the harbor, but that's not what ships are for."

-John A. Shedd

An ultra-large Golden class container ship, Ever Given, became stuck in the Suez Canal on 23 March 2021 at 05:30 Coordinated Universal Time (UTC).   The ship, operated by Evergreen Marine, was en route from Malaysia to the Netherlands when it ran aground after winds allegedly blew the ship off course. An investigation by Egyptian authorities, who own and operate the canal, is underway.

Ever Given container ship, stuck in the Suez Canal.
(C) University of Miami

The Ever Given, a ship as long as the Empire State Building is tall, completely blocked the canal for six days.  After being freed and refloated on 29 March, the Ever Given made way for a backlog of over 400 ships to pass through the canal.  

However, with a seizure of the Ever Given by Egyptian authorities and a pending $1 billion fine, the ship isn't going anywhere anytime soon.

Time is money

Where is the Suez Canal?

The canal cuts through Egypt, linking the Mediterranean Sea in the north to the Red Sea in the south.  It's one of the world's best-known and most important waterways.  Nearly 19,000 vessels passed through the canal last year carrying 1.2 billion tons of cargo.  Around 13% of maritime trade passes through the Suez Canal, including a large proportion of the world's oil.  (Suez Canal Authority; The Wall Street Journal)

The Suez Canal.  

An alternate route goes around the Cape of Good Hope off the southern coast of Africa.  But that course adds two weeks to the same trip from Asia to Europe.  

Major sailing routes. (C) Researchgate

The backstory

The size of ships is growing faster than ports can expand. Ships' size is directly related to consumer demand.  With household spending on the rise, logistics problems are likely to get worse.

For the U.S., a certain percentage of Peleton bikes, large screen televisions, and hot tubs are now being shipped by air to avoid a backlog in the Port of Los Angeles and Long Beach, California.  The LA port is North America's busiest while China is home to seven of the world's 10 largest container ports. (American Enterprise Institute) 

A National Retail Federation survey conducted in March before the Suez Canal blockage found that 98% of respondents said they had been impacted by port or other shipping-related delays.  More than half said congestion was adding at least three weeks to their supply chains.

The Ever Given was carrying 20,000 TEU (twenty-foot equivalent) containers filled with goods of nearly every kind. 

The incident

How did the ship get stuck in the first place?

The Suez Canal Authority said high wind speeds were a factor in causing the accident.  The Authority is also looking into human error and technical malfunction to see if they played a role.

"You can't steer straight if the wind is blowing sideways," said  Robert Flannery, an active pilot from New York who is familiar with this waterway.   

From the accident report, the Ever Given was moving north up the canal toward the Mediterranean Sea when it was caught in a season dust storm known as the khamsin where wind speeds can reach 40 knots or 46 mph.  Its bow then veered into the right side of the channel becoming embedded in the canal wall--and wedging the vessel across the entire width of the channel.

Convergence 

When stuck in a bad situation it's not likely you'll get out on your own.  So it was with the Ever Given cargo ship in the Suez Canal.  Let's think about what could be helpful in your next crisis:

1.  Are you on the right side of the problem?  Tugboats stationed north of Ever Given made it almost impossible to free the ship until reinforcements from elsewhere arrived at the south to pull on its stern.

2.  Scaling up means bigger and more complex problems. Twice the thick cables with which the main tugboat pulled the container ship snapped under the tension, the first time the crew has seen such a rupture.  Do you want to grow your business?  Then be prepared for unfamiliar circumstances and obstacles of size. Without previous experience management solutions often result from trial and error.  

3.  While asking for help keep in mind that experts are no guarantee of a fix. Workers had dredged more than a million cubic feet of sand and silt beneath the 1,300-foot-long vessel.  And then the tugs took advantage of an unusually high tide to begin moving the tanker back and forth.  But instead of slipping free and gliding to the center of the canal, the Ever Given remained stuck waiting for the next high tide.   

4.  Have hope--but hold the public optimism.  The Canal Authority began letting ships in from the north after engineers calculated the Ever Given would be pulled free.  This decision just added to the problem creating an even greater traffic jam.  

5.  One last push. The ship's owner hired Smit Salvage from the Netherlands.  A backup plan which called for unloading containers to lighten the load was put in place but added weeks to the rescue mission, something the Canal Authority wanted to avoid at all costs.  Instead, they chose to go for one last push hoping to extract just enough sand and debris for the Ever Given to slide free. 

Supermoon.  (C) The Guardian

6.  An assist from E.T.   Sometimes we get a break from a third-party source to help us out of a jam.  In this instance, the rescue team received an extra-terrestrial gift--a supermoon.  That type of moon materializes when the full moon coincides with the moon's closest approach to Earth in its orbit. Scientists say supermoons make the moon appear a little brighter and closer than normal, although the difference is hard to spot with the naked eye. (space.com) 

There are only four supermoons scheduled in 2021.  Amazingly, the first one came at just the right time on 28 March and pushed the tide higher.      

7.  Ship ahoy. The Alp Guard tugboat, with the pulling power of 285 metric tons arrived, providing a significant boost.  Fighting high winds and strong currents, the tide began to ebb and the Ever Given began to finally stir.  

On 29 March at 3:05 p.m. local time, the ship was free.  



Additional sources include CNBC; USA Today; Wikipedia; BBC; Popular Mechanics; and the Maritime Executive.


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