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.
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.
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.
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.”