Ever Given’s grounding highlights vulnerability of Suez Canal
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Cape Town - The length of four rugby fields, more than a rugby field wide, nearly 50m high with 11 tiers of containers on the foredeck and over 12 tiers in places in the midships section and down aft, very little space on each side, thousands of tons of heavy fuel in her bunker tanks, and a strong wind on the beam. That was the scenario – an accident waiting to happen – when, en route from China to Europe last week, the almost fully-laden Ever Given entered the Suez Canal at about 10 knots.
Imagine the windage on that enormous ship, and imagine her momentum when something went wrong, her stern touched the port side of the canal, and she ploughed into the starboard bank. That her propellers and rudder escaped damage is a miracle.
Of immediate concern was the fact that her bow was resting on one bank and the stern on the other, creating enormous stresses on the hull that would have been subjected to the even small rise and fall of the tide. Although she cracked somewhere up forward, allowing water into her forepeak tank, it was indeed fortunate that she did not fracture amidships.
Several factories and assembly lines rely on consignments of parts arriving “just in time” for their manufacturing processes, with containerships being regarded as floating, moving warehouses for the requisite parts. Thus, any delay to containerships – such as that caused by the lengthy hold-up at the Suez Canal – jeopardised the smooth operation of these factories. A motor assembly plant in Britain, for example, would have had parts from Japan, Korea or China aboard several of the containerships that were delayed in berthing in British ports.
Once the logjam at the canal broke on Monday afternoon, following the persistent and laudable efforts of Egyptian, Dutch and Japanese officers and tug crews – and the digger driver, the rush of ships to their discharge ports will lead to congestion at European ports or Asian ports such as Singapore, engendering further delays. And in the case of these mega-containerships, only a few ports are equipped to handle them, increasing the chance of congestion.
In time, the cause of the Ever Given incident will be determined and, no doubt, remedies will be sought to prevent a recurrence. The Canal Authority will need to review the procedures for large ships transiting the canal. Perhaps ships over a certain length and/or with high windage should have tugs made fast for the duration of the canal transit, a solution that will cost money and that will need umpteen tugs.
Any increase in costs or the prospect of canal delays will tip the balance in favour of some ships using the Cape route. At 20 knots, a ship on passage from Singapore to Rotterdam via the Cape will take only six days longer than going via the canal. To costs incurred on the latter route, canal dues that could amount to six-digit dollar-figures and possible fees for anti-piracy guards should be added.
Responding to the Ever Given incident, underwriters may impose insurance surcharges for larger ships using the canal. After all, with their loads of thousands of containers carrying mega-million-dollar cargoes, or tankers carrying millions of barrels of oil, they pose larger risks, not only for loss of the ship and her extremely valuable cargo, but also for blocking the canal.
Although this has been the most serious incident, five large containerships have grounded or caught fire in the canal in the past few years, Ever Given won’t be the last canal casualty, and even larger ships will enter service later this year, posing greater potential navigational difficulties when passing through the canal, especially with a wind on the beam.
While relatively few ships diverted to the Cape route this time, the vulnerability of the Suez Canal has been exposed again. Older Docklanders will recall the canal closures of 1956 to 1957 and 1967 to 1975, both because of military action in that part of the world. Although time-wise, the latest closure was shorter and created less dislocation to global shipping, it nevertheless imposed additional cost and inconvenience to umpteen ships.
In the wake of the Suez blockage, maritime lawyers will be the winners as disputes are inevitable. Owners of ships that are on time charter (that is on hire for a contracted period) will argue that the hire should continue to run during the period of delay because the ships could have provided the required service but an extraneous factor prevented its execution. Conversely, charterers may argue that a diverted vessel should off hire because the performance of the charter party (the agreed conditions governing the charter) was suspended while the ships were anchored and unable to transit the canal.
Chartered ships diverting to the Cape route could also engender disputes unless charterers had given express permission for the diversion to the longer haul or unless clauses in the charter party allowed the owners to opt for a longer route. Who would pay for the extra fuel might be a contentious issue.
The Suez route also involves a passage through the Gulf of Aden and the southern end of the Red Sea, both troubled by extremists and occasional pirate-sorties that also could render the route dangerous.
The Ever Given incident has reminded the shipping world that the canal is a fragile convenience that can close unexpectedly.