“The ship that broke global trade”


That’s part of the headline of a long in-depth report at Bloomberg about the Ever Given, the ship that got stuck in the Suez Canal a few months ago and caused a major disruption to already-disrupted global trade.

Transiting the Suez Canal is sometimes nerve-racking. The channel saves a three-week detour around Africa, but it’s narrow, about 200 meters (656 feet) wide in parts, and just 24 meters deep. Modern ships, by contrast, are massive and getting bigger. The Ever Given is 400 meters from bow to stern and nearly 60 meters across—most of the width of a Manhattan city block, and almost as long as the Empire State Building is high. En route from Malaysia to the Netherlands, it was loaded with about 17,600 brightly colored containers. Its keel would be only a few meters from the canal bottom. That didn’t leave much room for error.

After climbing aboard, the two Egyptian pilots were led up to the bridge to meet the captain, officers, and helmsmen, all of them Indian, like the rest of the crew. According to documents filed weeks later in an Egyptian court, there was a dispute at some point about whether the ship should enter the canal at all, given the bad weather—a debate that may have been hampered by the fact that English was neither side’s first language. At least four nearby ports had already closed because of the storm, and a day earlier the captain of a natural gas carrier sailing from Qatar had decided it was too gusty to traverse Suez safely.

Like airplanes, modern ships carry voyage data recorders, or VDRs, black-box devices that capture conversations on the bridge. The full recording of what transpired on the Ever Given’s bridge hasn’t been released by the Egyptian government, so it isn’t clear exactly what the pilots and crew said about the conditions. But the commercial pressures on Captain Kanthavel, an experienced mariner from Tamil Nadu, in India’s far south, would have been enormous. His ship was carrying roughly $1 billion worth of cargo, including Ikea furniture, Nike sneakers, Lenovo laptops, and 100 containers of an unidentified flammable liquid.

Several other corporate entities also had an interest in getting the Ever Given’s containers speedily to Europe. Among them was its owner, Shoei Kisen Kaisha Ltd., a shipping concern controlled by a wealthy Japanese family, and Evergreen Group, a Taiwanese conglomerate that operated it under a long-term charter. The crew, meanwhile, worked for Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement, a German company that supplies sailors for commercial vessels and oversees their operations. Every day’s delay would add tens of thousands of dollars in costs, if not more.

Veteran captains say they often don’t have much choice about sailing into Suez in poor conditions. “Do it, or we’ll find someone else who will,” they’re sometimes told.

There’s much more at the link.

It’s a fascinating analysis of what went wrong, and how bureaucracy and fundamental ineptness complicated things after that.  Highly recommended reading.



  1. BRM – What an interesting article. It really puts a human fact on all of this.

    I cannot imagine the stress of having to take a ship through the canal.

  2. Whether it's Panama, Corinth or Suez, baksheesh will be paid. Only Americans are upset by that at this point. There are few things more obnoxious than having to walk past canal authority 'linehandlers' emptying their bowels on deck while waiting for a tug, then refusing to catch lines or heave lines until the proper number of cartons of Marlboros and bottles of whisky are given to each useless non-worker.
    Panamanian linehanders don't shit on your deck at least. They just steal everything not welded down, unless you leave a grinder out, and then everything welded will be gone, too.
    I've only done one trip through the Suez, and from a helmsman's perspective, it was a lot like sailing through the Houston Ship Channel, only 100 miles long and the pilot smelled like a week old corpse on a hot July day. He got drunk on one of his 4-bottles of Ballentines, so he slept most of the way. It was less pleasant and more annoying than Panama, for sure.

  3. "Broke global trade"? Backed things up a bit, cost some extra money for some but like an accident on the freeway, once it's cleared up things go back to normal.

    Unless I'm missing something…

  4. *wipes egg off of face, and then eats some crow… some dumbass (me) mistook the suez canal with the panama canal, lmbo

  5. I recently read "The Box" by Marc Levinson about the history of container shipping.
    He presents the economics fairly well, so it's no surprise that captains are under pressure to get to ports ASAP.

  6. I spoke to a former ship's officer about this a while back. Apparently it's just one bribe after the other all the way along.

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