Politics

Big Boat Big Stuck, Again

A year after the Ever Given blocked the Suez Canal and upended global commerce, one of its cousins—the Ever Forward—is aground in the Chesapeake Bay.

A man gestures toward a giant cargo ship on the water
The Ever Forward, stuck in the Chesapeake, with way too much of its hull sticking out of the water. Petty Officer 3rd Class Breanna Centeno/U.S. Coast Guard

Since Sunday night, a 1,095-foot-long cargo ship has been stuck in the mud off the Maryland coast of the Chesapeake Bay.

For reasons that remain unknown, the ship—which is fate-temptingly named the Ever Forward—missed a turn while traveling from Baltimore to Norfolk, Virginia, and veered out of a 50-foot-deep channel that runs down the middle of the bay to accommodate such large cargo ships. Ship tracking data shows that the Ever Forward overshot the edge of the channel into waters much too shallow for it to traverse.

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The grounding came almost exactly one year after the Ever Given, a slightly larger cargo ship, got stuck in the Suez Canal for six days, blocking a massive amount of global trade. Both ships are operated by the Taiwan-based Evergreen Marine Corp. (Lots of the company’s boats employ the “Ever” naming convention; they include the Ever Forever, the Ever Dainty, the Ever Uranus, the Ever Salute, the Ever Balmy, the Ever Boomy, the Ever Burly, the Ever Concise, the Ever Fashion, the Ever Unicorn, and the Ever Cozy.)

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Compared with the Ever Given debacle—which froze up about $10 billion of trade per day as hundreds of waiting ships amassed at the entrance to the Suez Canal—the Ever Forward’s oopsie is no big whoop.

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The ship has completely exited the channel, so Ever Forward is not blocking any path between major ports. Boat traffic in the Chesapeake will not stop. Global trade will continue. There will be no dramatic photos of a gigantic boat stuck crosswise in a narrow space, à la Austin Powers doing a 1,000,000-point-turn, no images of a tiny excavator digging valiantly alongside a hulking hull.

But, from another angle, the Ever Forward’s quagmire is more serious: The process of freeing the Ever Forward will be more complicated than the Suez Canal mission, and it will take a lot longer to complete. On the spectrum of stuck boats, the Ever Forward is just much more stuck.

To compare: The center of the Ever Given always remained afloat in the Suez Canal. Only the tips of the ship were on land—the front had run aground, and the back was wedged against the side of the canal. To get the boat out, dredgers dug out mud and sand from underneath both ends, and tugboats wiggled it free.

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That’s not an option with the Ever Forward, which is resting in mud, from front to back, several hundred feet from the deeper waters where it was supposed to stay. Normally, when it floats, the ship’s lowest point is about 42 feet under the surface of the water. The water where the Ever Forward currently sits is between 17 and 24 feet deep.

“She’s literally on land, entirely, so you can’t just pull her backwards out. It’s not going to work that way,” said Sal Mercogliano, a former merchant mariner and current professor of maritime history at Campbell University. “You’re going to have to lighten her up, try to get some weight off her.”

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Mercogliano, who started a YouTube channel about global shipping during the Ever Given fiasco, said he expects that the salvage company hired by Evergreen Marine Corp. will start by pumping the fuel out of the ship. Then, most likely, floating cranes will transfer some of its cargo to another ship. In normal conditions, when a ship is in port, cranes on solid ground take two minutes to load each container on board.

The Ever Forward has a capacity of around 12,000 shipping containers. With only a floating crane to do the work, it could take weeks to offload enough cargo to get the ship moving.

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Since the Ever Forward isn’t holding up a sizable chunk of the global economy—a full 12 percent of the world’s goods move through the Suez Canal—there’s less pressure to rush the process. “Ever Given was moved as quickly as it was because of its location. They needed to move that ship,” Mercogliano said. “I would argue that in that salvage, they took some calculated risks to move that vessel. In the case of Ever Forward, there’s no reason to take a calculated risk.”

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Ships of the Ever Forward’s magnitude only began traversing the Chesapeake Bay after 2016, when a new lane opened in the Panama Canal that allowed ships with a capacity of greater than 5,000 containers to pass through. As a result, the Port of Baltimore and several other East Coast ports began slowly expanding to accommodate the bigger boats. Mercogliano said the Chesapeake has seen a greater number of such ships come through in recent months, as COVID-related supply chain disruptions have caused a backup of cargo ships at major West Coast ports, leading companies to send goods through the Panama Canal to East Coast and Gulf Coast ports instead.

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If the Coast Guard or the boat’s operator has figured out why the Ever Forward skidded aground, it hasn’t made that information public. When asked for comment, Evergreen Marine Corp. sent a statement. “We can confirm that the accident did not cause damage to the vessel’s hull and there is no leakage of fuel,” it read. “The propeller and rudder of the ship are fully functional.” A representative from the Maryland Department of the Environment said there are “no indications of any pollution” thus far.

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A Coast Guard press release said that responders are monitoring the ship and investigating how it veered off track. According to Mercogliano, after the Ever Forward ran aground, the Coast Guard probably immediately boarded the ship, retrieved the voyage data recorder—a device akin to an airplane’s black box—and drug-tested all members of the crew. “According to people familiar with the area, ships typically slow down to less than 10 knots” when approaching the turn that the Ever Forward missed, Mercogliano said. Ship tracking data shows that the Ever Forward had sped up to 13 knots in that spot. It’s not yet clear why, or whether that played into its muddy fate.

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Cargo ship groundings aren’t common, but Mercogliano cautioned against drawing any blanket conclusions about the fact that two Evergreen Marine Corp. ships have run aground in less than a year. The vast majority of international container shipping is done by just nine major companies—and Evergreen Marine Corp. is one of the biggest—so it’s not an extraordinary coincidence that the company’s ships have been involved in two of the few groundings in the past year.

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The two ships were also run by different crews and registered in different countries. (The Ever Given flew Panama’s flag, the Ever Forward Hong Kong’s.) “So, you know, the fact that it’s two Evergreen ships doesn’t indicate that they can’t drive, for example,” Mercogliano said.

As for the supply chain, we may still see a trickle-down effect. Cargo loads that were supposed to ride the Ever Forward on its scheduled April voyage from China to the U.S. will undoubtedly be diverted or delayed. Plus, the strained global supply chain has left shipping companies with no extra vessels in reserve.

“I mean, if you have a container ship, go put it on the market right now. You’ll make a fortune,” Mercogliano said. “If you’ve got a rowboat and you can put a container on it, they’ll charter it.”

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