Wind … or worse: was pilot error to blame for the Suez blockage?

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The trouble started at 5:17am. Ever Given, an Ultra Large Container Vessel (ULCV) loaded with 20,000 containers, had set off up the Suez canal a quarter of an hour earlier from the south, in the bay of Suez.

This is how the canal works: ships anchor the night before and wait to set off early the following morning – one convoy southbound from Port Said starting at 3.30am, the northbound one at 5:00am. They meet each other at Great Bitter Lake, where the southbound convoy anchors to let the other pass. Consider a country lane with passing spots, only for ships the height of buildings, travelling at the speed of a scooter.

There are convoys because for much of its 120-mile length the canal is narrow. A two-way system was constructed at great expense by Egypt in 2015, shortening the southbound convoy transit to 11 hours. But it only runs for 22 miles. For the rest of the passage, the ships must travel single file down a very slim route.

Ever Given was big, and she was heavy. As is normal in global shipping, her usual route was to head east to fetch goods from Asia, then to return laden. She was also wide, with a “beam” – or width – of 194ft and her depth underwater was 51ft. ULCV is a specification given to a craft with a capacity greater than 20,000 twenty-foot equivalent units. The Suez regulations require special permission for ships of Ever Given’s size, but she just qualified as Suezmax: the maximum dimensions allowed for shipping to transit the canal.

Ships wait to pass the Suez Canal on the Great Bitter Lake.

The weather was not calm. Not only was there a wind of 30mph coming from the port quarter – the back left – but there was also a sandstorm. Ever Given left her harbour and set off at 8 knots. When I transited Suez on a container ship in 2010, I remember it feeling like an amble. It was also dull: green water, sand, some habitation here and there. After a few hours, I understood why the crew had scorned it as “a ditch in a desert.” Even the laconic first officer was moved to express an opinion: “Sand, sand, sand.” Mishap seems impossible, I told the captain at the time, as we stood on the bridge while the pilot dozed. “Wrong,” he said.

Once, he recalled, he was leaving the container terminal to enter the canal when the pilot beached the ship on sand. The captain stepped in by overruling the pilot, got the ship off the bank, then took a much-deserved break. “When I came back, I said, ‘Where’s the bloody pilot?'” Then I saw his head popping up. He was on the deck, praying.”

Suez may look serene, but navigating big ships in shallow canals can be tricky. Ships take on board a “Suez pilot” and a “Suez crew”, who are mandated for their local knowledge. It is well known that these officers must be “lubricated” with cartons of Marlboro and goodies from the bond locker (the ship tuck-shop), leading to another crew nickname for Suez: the Marlboro canal. “I don’t think the Egyptians could have built the pyramids,” a senior engineer once told me. “They couldn’t have: they didn’t have Marlboro then.”

This is offensive to those Egyptians who believe the canal is a source of great national pride, but on my trip I watched the Suez pilot eat his way through the whole lunch menu, then snooze – on the sofa, on the captain’s chair, on the watch officer’s chair. The second officer had to keep waking him up for instructions.

A satellite handout image show s the Ever Givenlodged sideways across Suez Canal.

We don’t know what the pilot was doing on the morning the Ever Given set off, carrying nearly three times as many boxes as the ship I traveled on – but we know that 5:17am is when the ship first veered towards the portside bank. The trajectory, however, was corrected. For the next 25 minutes (as seen in this simulation, based on satellite data), the ship sped up to more than 13 knots. One explanation for this would have been to better deal with the wind.

At about 5:42am, something was clearly going wrong. The ship swung to port, then starboard, port again, starboard again, until finally the bow swung sharply to starboard and smashed into Asia. Because the ship was longer than the canal was wide, she was wedged.

There she stayed for six days, plugging a thoroughfare that carries more than 10% of global shipping every day, in an industry that transports 90% of global trade. The general public suddenly noticed that ships were quite important after all, and that hardly anything travels by plane.

Other ships have got into trouble in Suez. The OOCL Japan lost its steering in 2017 and hit the bank; it destroyed some road and a passing car and was freed in several hours. In 2004, the Russian oil tanker Tropic Brilliance closed the canal for 3 days by getting similarly wedged after mechanical problems.

An aerial view on March 27 shows ships waiting in queue in the Gulf of Suez .

At first, the prevailing theory given for Ever Given’s plight, by Lt Gen Osama Rabie, chief of the Suez Canal Authority, was “strong winds and a dust storm”. By Saturday, Rabie’s view had changed. Now, the weather could be involved but so could “technical error, or a human error.”

I nodded at this, thinking back to that snoozing pilot and making assumptions. The majority of marine accidents involve human error – “either before, during or after” a disaster, in the words of a retired senior captain.

No other ship veered, though they were affected by the same wind, and were steaming through the same canal water. The ship ahead, the Cosco Galaxy, was as large as the Ever Given, but nothing happened to her. The other 19 ships in the convoy proceeded with no incident, except for nearly ramming into each other: it takes a mile or so to fully stop.

It is possible that the sandstorm caused poor visibility – but ships operate at night using radar: they don’t need to see clearly. The huge wall of containers could have operated as a sail when the wind picked up, blowing it off course. Could the pilot have overcompensated for the wind?

Or perhaps the crew didn’t react fast enough to events because they were almost certainly exhausted. Not only does the Suez convoy start early, but life on a container ship – with its routine, isolation and four-hour watches, three times a day – can be draining. During my transit, the second officer had had three hours sleep a night for the previous three nights, and had no sleep the night before the convoy. What’s more, in the pandemic, many of the world’s 1.5 million seafarers have been unable to go ashore for months. Exhaustion is widespread.

People watch Ever Given, move past after it was set free.

Then there’s the water. Canals may look calm, but their water can do strange things to big ships, causing complex hydrodynamics that can create suction, pulling a ship towards a bank or tipping up its bow. A “squat effect” can happen because, unlike at sea, the water in a canal has to stay put: it bunches up under the ship, the flow speeds up under the hull, and the pressure decreases, sucking the hull down into a vacuum.

The squat happens when the bow is raised and the backside sinks. If a ship gets too close to a bank, a “bank effect” can take hold, with equally perilous hydrodynamics: speed, pressure and suction pull the ship off-course, and can send her spinning. Overcorrection using the rudder can make things worse. The bank effect is so complicated, whole PhDs have been done on it. The bigger the ship, the more powerful the sucking.

“It always comes down to two things,” says Dr Sal Mercogliano, a maritime historian at North Carolina’s Campbell University. “Mechanical, or human. Even if it’s the wind and the weather, that’s human because again we have the ability to detect the wind. If they knew high winds were a potential that morning, why bring the ship into the canal?”

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Suez canal ship freed and heading to lake for inspections - video

Two investigations are already under way. Ever Given is owned by a Japanese company, operated by a Taiwanese company, crewed by Indians, but it flies the flag of Panama, because that is how shipping operates: ships can rent a flag from flag registries, and Panama is the world’s largest. Under International Maritime Organization safety investigation rules, Panama does the safety investigation, even though the ship got stuck in Egyptian waters. Panama’s investigation will not cover culpability, but Egypt has already begun an investigation into “the vessel’s seaworthiness and the crew’s actions”.

“I suspect,” says Guy Platten, secretary-general of the International Chamber of Shipping, “that we will find that it was a complex series of events.” A chain of greater and greater mishap. If the cause is found to be human or mechanical, not an act of God or force majeure, the insurers will be liable for a dizzying amount of damages. “There’s going to be a lot of finger-pointing,” says Mercogliano. A preliminary report by Panama already blamed mechanical failure. Meanwhile, the owners Shoei Kisen Kaisha has already filed a claim in England’s High Court against the operators Evergreen.

We always need someone to blame, and it is always easier to jail a human than the wind. Criminalising seafarers for what happens with large vessels worries the International Chamber of Shipping and other maritime associations. In 2007 the Hebei Spirit, carrying 250,000 tons of crude oil, was rammed by a Samsung Heavy Industries barge while it sat at anchor outside Daesan in South Korea, causing serious oil pollution. Captain Jasprit Chawla sounded his whistle five times, and tried to call the barge – yet Chawla and his first officer were jailed for 18 months. Imagine this in another transport situation: you’re sitting in parked car, you’re rammed, and you go to prison.

Big and heavy: the refloated container ship Ever Given.

In a way, the grounding of Ever Given was the best case scenario for a large maritime disaster, apart from the expensive hiccup to the smooth sailing of global trade. Nobody was hurt; nothing was polluted. The speed of the ship’s liberation – six days – can be a source of pride to Egyptians, with their plucky tugs and tireless excavators, though the wisdom of sending a ship that had rammed into a bank at speed, up the canal using its own engine, would have most maritime safety experts scratching their heads. It has provoked useful debate on what could make Suez safer: should ships be escorted by tugs, though Egypt doesn’t have enough to share out amongst the convoys? Should ships downsize to more manageable proportions?

“This incident,” said Platten in a statement, “has brought to stage the importance of global shipping to daily life, and the delicate nature of the global supply chain it underpins.” Will we, with our insatiable desire for consumer goods, which is the reason these giant ships exist, question whether the price of what we get is worth the cost? “It takes 1,500 people and Jack dying on the Titanic for us to put more lifeboats on vessels,” says Mercogliano. “Maritime laws are written in blood.”

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