The World

What’s Next for the Big Stuck Boat

Maybe a crane? A shipping expert lays out the fallback options.

Two small boats next to a giant container ship in the Suez Canal
Egyptian tugboats try to free the Ever Given on Thursday. Suez Canal Authority/Handout/AFP via Getty Images

Three days after running aground and wedging itself diagonally across the Suez Canal, the Ever Given—one of the world’s largest container ships—remains firmly lodged in place, despite the best effort of the canal authority and a Dutch salvage company to get it unstuck. It now looks like it may take weeks to remove it. In the meantime, traffic is stopped through one of the most critical links in the global supply chain, and some ships are starting to take the long way around Africa.

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To talk about just how bad things could get—for the ship itself, seafarers, the shipping industry, and consumers around the world—I spoke with James Baker, container shipping editor at Lloyd’s List, the centuries-old London-based journal covering the global shipping industry. Our interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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Joshua Keating: So, do you have any sense of how long this will take?

James Baker: If it’s not off by the next high tide on Monday, it could be a while.

What’s so important about high tide?

We’re coming up to a spring tide at midnight on Monday, which is the highest water level they’re going to get. When you’re trying to float something off, having more water underneath is all the better. Unfortunately, in the Suez Canal there’s not a huge amount of tidal range, so it won’t be a great help, but it’s still probably their best chance. After that, it gets more difficult. We’re already seeing ships start to diverge around the cape, which means that those carriers think it’s going to take a while.

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So, if we are looking at days or even weeks longer, what does that mean, big picture, for global shipping?

The impact for shipping is pretty big. Shipping won’t stop—12 percent of all shipping goes through the Suez Canal, which means 88 percent goes nowhere near it—but effectively what would happen is that ships will have to diverge around the Cape of Good Hope instead. So, if you’re bringing stuff from southern China to the East Coast of the U.S., it would normally go through Suez, then the Strait of Gibraltar, then out into the Atlantic. Now, it will have to go through the Strait of Malacca, down under South Africa, and back up, which adds several thousand more miles and another week or so of transport time. We’ll also probably see more ships coming through Panama from Asia to the East Coast.

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So, it’s likely we’ll see delays. It will also take ships that are in Europe or the U.S. now longer to get back to China with empty containers to be reloaded, which could lead to a shortage of container equipment. It will add more pressure to the global supply chain, which it really doesn’t need at the moment.

Are these delays something consumers could notice, either in terms of higher prices or shortages of some goods in stores?

I’m not convinced it’s going to cause massive problems at the level of the supermarket or the electronics shop, certainly no more so than the problems that are already there because of really high COVID-driven demand. The bottom line over the past year has been that demand shot up while everyone was stuck at home. There was a rush to get goods, especially into the U.S., and so you saw ports like Long Beach getting really snarled up and it was hard to get containers back, which created a vicious cycle of slowdowns.

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So, the situation was already really bad. Whether this could make it worse, it’s too early to tell.  Most consumer goods have a certain amount of slack in the system. Even if shipping rates do go up, if you take a $100 pair of sneakers, the actual ocean freight element of that is literally pennies.

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But there will probably be some shortages. If you’re waiting on a new car from Asia, you’re probably going to be waiting a while.

Does this look to you like a freak accident, or is someone to blame, either the canal authority or the shipping company?

There are various theories, but until we get the data recorder, we won’t actually know what the real cause was. But unless the pilot on board was drunk or not doing his job, I think it’s most likely it was a freak accident.

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Do you think they should reconsider letting ships of that size through the canal?

Well, they’ve been doing it for a long time. Everyone’s going on about how big the ship is, but this class of ship has been going through the canal for about 15 years without incident. You’ve also got a class of ship called the Suezmax, which is the largest oil tanker that can go through there, and they’re massive.

One of the issues is that it’s very hard to salvage one of these ultralarge ships when something does go wrong. One of the things they may have to do is make it lighter, which means craning off some of the containers. But that thing’s got probably 10,000 containers on it, and the top of that stack is probably 30-odd meters above the waterline. That means bringing what’s called a barge crane alongside. It’s going to have to have a massive crane on it—just look down at your local waterfront and see the size of the cranes that are designed to work those ships.

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So, when something goes wrong with these big ships, there can be problems. But they bring in a lot of revenue for the Suez Canal, so I don’t imagine they’re going to be stopping them anytime soon.

What does this mean for the crew members, either of the ship that’s stuck or the ones that have now been delayed, especially given all the strain they’ve already been under because of COVID?

It’s not good by any stretch of the imagination for the crews, but being stuck for another four or five days or even two weeks is nothing when you’ve been stuck on board for eight or nine months because of COVID, not being able to disembark from ships to get back home, having to work beyond their contracts. Thankfully, things aren’t quite as bad now in terms of crew changes.

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But seafarers are used to being out at sea for a long time. Contracts are usually six months. These days there’s no “girl in every port” type thing. The ship’s only in port for 12 to 24 hours, and the crew are on board the whole time because of security issues.

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I’ll admit that like most people, I really only think about global shipping when something goes wrong. Are there any lessons we all ought to take from this?

It does show just how critical the shipping sector is. Ninety percent of all goods are shipped by sea, so this underlines how important this infrastructure is and how important seafarers are to modern life. There used to be this old quip that if there was no shipping, half the world would starve and half the world would freeze, because you’d have no food and no energy.

Despite this, shipping will continue. It’s a very resilient industry. They’ll find a way around it.

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