Tugboats escort a container ship as it passes through the New Suez Canal. Bloomberg file photo by Shawn Baldwin 

Imagine global trade as a stream of water flowing from a faucet: You can adjust its volume with the taps and tweak how much cold and hot water you need. That water flows directly into a drain with no interruption. Now plug the drain, and the water backs up and fills the sink. Eventually, it will overflow and find an alternative route. This is the situation facing global trade after the giant container ship Ever Given lost control in the southern end of the Suez Canal early Tuesday morning.

At a speed of 13 knots (almost 15 mph), the ship careered into the eastern bank of the canal and lodged its bulbous bow into Asia. As the canal in that area is narrower than the length of the ship, the stern, or back, of the vessel veered to the left. With the ship’s rudder and propeller firmly lodged in the mud of Africa, and the remainder of the 1,300-foot vessel astride the canal, the essential waterway that carries 12% of the world’s maritime trade is effectively plugged. This incident comes on top of already chaotic trade conditions brought about by a tariff war between the United States and China and the global pandemic — as we’ve all witnessed, with deliveries of everything from toilet paper to clothing and electronics often delayed.

The situation seems absurd, but it underscores the fundamentally precarious nature of modern global shipping logistics that most consumers take for granted every day. Even shipments that don’t go through Suez will be affected as factories wait on essential components arriving from elsewhere before they can make products to send off. Gas and oil prices will spike. The effects on the worldwide supply chain may not even be fully clear for a while. But the system of rapid shipping that now drives so much of global trade was first enabled by the Suez Canal, so it’s little surprise that the backup is rippling around the planet.

Since its opening in November 1869, the Suez Canal has provided a shorter route between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. The British utilized maritime chokepoints like this — along with Gibraltar at the mouth of the Mediterranean, Singapore between the Indian and Pacific oceans, and the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa — to dominate the world’s maritime trade.

In 1956, Gamal Abdel Nasser led Egypt to nationalize the canal, resulting in the first of its two major closings. Reopened after a few months, the Suez Canal was a strategic asset for the nation, providing revenue from tolls. Today, ships pay on average $700,000 to traverse the canal, one way.

In 1968, the Six-Day War led to the longest closing of the Suez, a total of eight years, until 1975. The Israeli attack on Egypt was such a surprise, and so successful with the capture of Sinai and crossing of the Suez, that 15 vessels were caught in the canal when it closed. The mariners trapped on board, from Europe and the United States, formed the “Great Bitter Lake Association,” also known as the Yellow Fleet. Over time, the ships were nested and caretaker crews replaced the original ones. Most of the vessels were declared losses, but two German vessels reached Hamburg on May 24, 1975, completing the longest transit of the canal in history.

The closing of the canal by the Ever Given may last days, or it could go on for weeks, and potentially months if the vessel sustains structural damage. No matter how long it remains astride the canal, the economic and political impact are immediate. On average, Lloyd’s estimate that each day the canal is closed, $9.6 billion worth of goods are stranded and unable to get to markets in Asia and Europe.

In terms of immediate impact, Europe will see a spike in fuel prices as oil from the Persian Gulf is delayed from arriving in ports. Millions of customers expecting orders will see their deliveries postponed as warehouses and distribution sites soon run out of stock. Ports expecting to receive ships, such as Rotterdam, Felixstowe and Hamburg for the Ever Given, will have empty berths and send workers home. Factories and production facilities that require material from Asia — like carmakers in Germany — may have to close assembly lines as key components become unavailable, also delaying shipments from Europe to North and South America.

Even when the canal is reopened — or as ships divert around the Cape of Good Hope, adding nearly 3,500 miles to their voyage — the arrival of late ships, along with regularly scheduled deliveries, will cause delays in ports similar to what is occurring in American harbors. The inability to free the Ever Given during recent high tides, and the decision to call in the Dutch salvage company SMIT, indicates that this may take days, if not longer, with a spring tide scheduled to occur March 31. With the ship aground at each end, and only the amidships section afloat, there is a concern about sagging stresses causing cracks in the hull, particularly the longer she remains grounded and as fuel, ballast and cargo are removed. The latter is a tough challenge due to the size and height of the vessel. Egypt and the Suez Canal Authority are using dredgers to clear out the dirt along the forward port side of the vessel. The concern is not merely that material, but the dirt beneath the hull and concern about the vessel rolling or cracking.

The growth of fleets at both ends of the canal — along with a large group anchored in the Great Bitter Lake, reminiscent of the Yellow Fleet — raises concerns, too. Shippers will want to offload high value, time-constrained and perishable cargo. Such an accumulation of vessels also raises security concerns about having so many valuable ships in a specific area.

And we still don’t know the cause of the problem. Conflicting reports allege a power failure, while the operator cites high winds and reduced visibility. Either way, the lack of large salvage tugs as a part of the Suez Canal Authority is forcing the world to await the arrival of such vessels. Boskalis, the parent company of SMIT Salvage, has one of its large deep-dive vessels, Boka da Vinci, in Port Said on the north end of the canal. Other assets need to sail from current jobs in the Persian Gulf and Mediterranean.

With tension over the South China Sea, European navies, such as those of Great Britain, France and Germany, have scheduled transits of the canal for their ships. Those may be delayed if the closure continues. For the U.S. Navy, the Dwight D. Eisenhower battle group is in the Mediterranean, while the Theodore Roosevelt carrier and Makin amphibious ready groups are in the Indian Ocean. Should they be needed in either the Persian Gulf or the Mediterranean, then the Navy would have to order a repeat of the performance of the USS Oregon in 1898, when it sailed around South America to join the American fleet off Cuba.

In 2013, author Rose George embarked on the container ship Maersk Kendal — much smaller than Ever Given — to learn about the maritime industry. In her book “Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food on Your Plate,” she discussed the transit. “Our passage feels so stately and secure through the canal,” she wrote. “It seems that mishap is impossible. Wrong, says the captain.” These prophetic words highlight the necessary danger of maritime transportation to the world.

The grounding of the Ever Given has graphically shown the world, once again, how vital the maritime supply chain is, not just to those receiving the goods from a particular vessel, but to everyone — and how easily a disruption can occur that affects us all.

Salvatore R. Mercogliano is an associate professor of history at Campbell University and a former merchant mariner.


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