The forecast for Tuesday, March 23, showed wind gusts of more than 40 miles per hour and sand storms sweeping through northern Egypt. Indeed, such weather is common in the Sinai desert at this time of year.
The Suez Canal—one of the most critical, yet precarious waterways on the planet—remained open. Ships were starting to form the daily convoy as the gusts picked up. One of the world’s biggest container vessels, the Ever Given, joined it. The decision would reverberate globally within hours.
7:40 a.m. local time, the megaship—loaded with containers that would stretch more than 120 kilometers (75 miles) end to end and carrying everything from frozen fish to furniture—was stuck. Its grounding would not only lay bare the intricacies of navigating a man-made trench of water in a vessel the size of the Eiffel Tower, but also the fragility of a global network of markets and economies that takes for granted the flow of goods through it.
Based on tracking data and dozens of interviews with people in the industry, what’s known is that the Ever Given started heading through the 300 meter-wide canal while at least one other ship decided to hold off due to the high winds. The Ever Given also didn’t employ tug boats, according to two people with knowledge of the situation, while the two slightly smaller container ships immediately ahead did.
Then there was the issue of how fast it was going. When the ship began to move toward the sand, it appeared to speed up, perhaps to correct itself, though it was too late and it almost collided with the bank. That served to then wedge the steel hull more deeply into the side of the canal. The gusts also would have compounded what’s considered by captains as one of the toughest water crossings in the world.
“You’re in for some white-knuckle rides,” said Andrew Kinsey, a former captain who has navigated a 300-meter cargo ship through the Suez and is now a senior marine risk consultant at Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty. “It’s such a small canal, the winds are very rough and you have a really small margin for error and big consequences if errors happen.”
It wasn’t a situation where you couldn’t sail, even though wind was strong enough to close nearby ports. Some vessels used tugs or other assistance, others just passed through without incident.
At least one ship decided to delay the trip through the canal, though. The day before the Ever Given grounded, the Rasheeda was among the ships approaching the canal from the southern end. Mindful of the dangers of the coming sandstorm and laden with liquefied natural gas from Qatar, the captain decided not to enter the canal after discussion with other officials at Royal Dutch Shell Plc, which manages the ship, according to two people familiar with the situation.
The Suez Canal Authority said a lack of visibility in adverse weather led to the ship losing control and drifting. It hasn’t commented further. Taiwan-based Evergreen Line, the time charterer of the vessel, said by email the Ever Given “was grounded accidentally after deviating from its course due to suspected sudden strong wind.”
The manager of the ship, Benhard Schulte Shipmanagement, said initial investigations suggest the accident was due to the wind. An extensive investigation involving multi-agencies and parties is ongoing. It will include interviews with pilots onboard and all bridge personnel and other crew, said a company spokesman.
Meanwhile, the canal remains blocked and the latest reports from people familiar with rescue efforts suggest that will take until at least Wednesday.
A conduit for 12% of the world’s trade, an average of 50 ships pass through Suez every day in convoys that start in the early morning. The Ever Given started its journey soon after daybreak and picked up two local pilots from the Suez Canal Authority. They come onboard to supervise ships making the journey through the waterway that can take up to 12 hours. But the authority’s rules of navigation clearly spell out that the captain, shipowners and charterers remain responsible for accidents.
The Ever Given captain overseeing the bridge had made the journey through the Suez many times before and handled it through gusty wind, according to a former crew member. Shipping companies say that they use their top captains for Suez because of the delicate nature of the trip.
But what happened next left $10 billion worth of goods with nowhere to go with more than 300 ships carrying products across multiple industries now stuck in the gridlock.
The Ever Given lost its bearing and began turning to its starboard side around 5 miles into the mouth of canal. The 200,000-ton ship then careened to its port side, and soon moved sideways and ran aground, its bulbous red bow that juts out to cut efficiently through water firmly embedded in the sandy embankment.
“Here we have just a single vessel that’s out of place and yet it has impact on the entire maritime and global economy,” said Ian Ralby, chief executive officer of I.R. Consilium, a maritime law and security consulting firm that works with governments. “This ship—carrying exactly the kinds of things we rely on day to day—shows that the supply chains we rely on are so integrated and the margin for error is so thin.”
Those piecing together what caused the accident will undoubtedly look at speed. The ship’s last known speed was 13.5 knots at 7:28 a.m., 12 minutes before the grounding, according to Bloomberg data.
That would have surpassed the speed limit of about 7.6 knots (8.7 miles an hour) to 8.6 knots that is listed as the maximum speed vessels are “allowed to transit” through the canal, according to the Suez authority’s rules of navigation handbook posted on its website. Captains interviewed for this story said it can pay to increase the speed in the face of a strong wind to maneuver the ship better.
“Speeding up to a certain point is effective,” said Chris Gillard, who was captain of a 300-meter container ship that crossed the Suez monthly for nearly a decade until 2019. “More than that and it becomes counter effective because the bow will get sucked down deep into the water. Then, adding too much power does nothing but exacerbate the problem.”
Bloomberg data also show that the 300-meter Maersk Denver traveling behind the Ever Given also posted a top speed of 10.6 knots at 7:28 a.m. A spokesperson for Maersk in Denmark declined to comment. Ship captains and local pilots said it’s not unusual to travel through the canal around that speed despite the lower limit.
The Cosco Galaxy, a container ship marginally smaller than the Ever Given, was immediately ahead and appears to have travelled at a similar speed, though with a tugboat. The one ahead of the Cosco, the Al Nasriyah, also had an escort. The escorts are not mandatory, according to the Suez authority’s rules of navigation, though the authority can require it for ships if they deem it necessary.
“The biggest vessels often travel with a tugboat in close proximity, an escort boat, to facilitate the transit,” said Captain Theologos Gampierakis at commodity trading house Trafigura Group in Athens.
A cargo ship with containers stacked high like the Ever Given can be particularly hard to navigate since the ship’s hull and wall of containers can act as a huge sail, said Kinsey, the former captain, who made his last trip through Suez in 2006 .
“You might find yourself positioning the ship in one direction, and you’re actually moving in another direction,” said Kinsey. “There’s a very fine line between having enough speed to maneuver and not having too much speed that the air and hydrodynamics become unstable. Any deviation can get real bad real quick because it’s so tight.”
About 20 minutes after the incident, the first of two tugboats accompanying the vessels ahead of the Ever Given came back to push its port side in an effort to dislodge it, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Later, eight tugboats were deployed to push both sides of the container vessel, but to no avail.
On the ground, officials and investigators were sent to the embankment. Excavators tried to make a dent in helping to release it from the sandy embankment.
In a village 100 meters away from the stuck ship, the vessel looms on the skyline like a giant monument. Every day that it sits still makes it harder to extricate it, due to the sediment that’s being carried by the currents that will pack around the ship under the water, said Kinsey.
The accident will be a missed opportunity if the industry doesn’t adapt, he said. “There will be vessels larger than this one that will be going through the Suez,” he said. “The next incident will be worse.” – Bloomberg