Suez Canal crisis: How it happened

Karima Abdel-Ghani, Tuesday 30 Mar 2021

Maritime experts explain what caused the Ever Given container ship to run aground in the Suez Canal and how it was refloated

How it happened
Ever Given, a Panama-flagged cargo ship is accompanied by Suez Canal tugboats as it moves in the Suez Canal, Egypt, Monday, March 29, 2021 (Photo: Suez Canal Authority)

“Lieutenant-General Osama Rabie, chairman of the Suez Canal Authority (SCA), announced on Monday that the manoeuvres by 10 giant tugboats had succeeded in refloating the stranded Ever Given container ship and setting it on a course towards the Great Bitter Lake.”

This was the announcement that ended the crisis in the Suez Canal after the container ship Ever Given ran aground in the southern sector of the canal a week ago on Tuesday as it moved northward with a convoy from the south and was eventually freed earlier this week.

Meanwhile, hundreds of ships accumulated in the Great Bitter Lake and Lake Timsah, while hundreds of others, unable to enter the maritime corridor, were forced to queue up as they waited for dredging operations to free the front and rear ends of the ship’s hull.

The Ever Given had gotten wedged sideways in the canal, blocking the shipping lane and precipitating a global commercial panic due to its impact on international trade and navigation. Oil prices shot up, as did the prices of numerous goods and commodities. Shipping, cargo, and commercial firms, as well as the SCA, incurred huge losses, all of which focused attention on the mechanics of the incident.

The Panama-flagged Ever Given is operated by the Taiwan-based Evergreen marine transportation and shipping company and is owned by Shoei Kisen Kaisha, a subsidiary of the Japanese Imabari Shipbuilding Company. One of the new generation of mega-ships built by this firm, and one of the largest container ships in the world, it is 400 metres long overall and 59 metres wide and has a container capacity of over 21,000 standard containers and a gross tonnage of 230,000 tons.

According to Mohamed Dawoud, vice-president of the Arab Academy for Science, Technology, and Maritime Transport (AASTMT) in Cairo, stranding or grounding in marine terminology is a maritime accident that occurs when a ship runs aground in a body of water as a result of natural phenomena or technical or human error.

In the case of the Ever Given, the ship was driven off course by strong wind from the west as it headed northwards on 23 March, causing it to hit bottom at the Suez Canal’s 151km mark as its bow penetrated six metres into the sand on the eastern bank. Fifth in line in a northward-bound convoy, the ship was on its way from China to Rotterdam.

“The place where the ship ran aground was in the main corridor of the Suez Canal, which does not have two lanes,” Dawoud said. “It had to reduce its speed, as is the case when any ship enters the Suez Canal or any other such maritime passageway in the world in order to avert damage to the sides of the corridor and to be better able to steer the vessel in the specified direction.

“However, in this case, the ship exceeded the speed limit set by the Suez Canal Authority. The last recorded speed was 13.5 knots 12 minutes before it stopped. The speed limit for the canal is between 7.6 and 8.6 knots,” he added.

Dawoud said that at slow speeds it is harder to control a ship in fast winds and a high-water level, which is why he believes the captain decided to increase the speed of the ship. However, because of the additional height of the containers above the deck, rapid winds drove the vessel off its northward course.

He said that the tall stacks of containers along the length of the ship had increased the “windage area”, meaning that they had acted as a sail under the impact of high winds.

“Under such conditions, a ship might run aground, but the problem in this case was the sheer size and weight of the ship when it drifted sideways. The 400-metre length of the vessel is greater than the width of the canal. To complicate the problem, the bow and stern became deeply wedged into the banks on both sides. This brought traffic in the canal to a complete halt because it occurred in the corridor, as opposed to the double-lane portion to the north. There a stranded ship would not have caused such a blockage and the consequent impact on international navigation.”

Neither the captain of the Ever Given nor the Suez Canal pilots who were aboard to help guide the ship had issued statements at the time Al-Ahram Weekly went to press. However, Dawoud believes that the ship’s company bears the responsibility for the accident. “The captain is ultimately responsible for the stranding. The views of the pilot are purely advisory,” he said.

Now that the ship has been re-floated, Dawoud said, extensive investigations will certainly be conducted by the stakeholders from the SCA, the shipping firm operating the vessel, the ship’s owners, and the insurance companies. All will be determined to identify the precise cause and extent of the damage, especially the insurance firms which are responsible for paying out indemnities.

How it happened
How it happened

THE SUEZ CANAL: For the Suez Canal, as a maritime passageway most of the losses it sustained resulted from the halt in traffic caused by the blockage. This was a major reason why the SCA had worked around the clock to free the mammoth vessel and get it sailing again, Dawoud said.

Smit Salvage, a subsidiary of the Dutch firm Boskalis, was brought in to assist the authority with the dredging operations to free the hull from the banks and prepare the equipment needed to tug the vessel.

“The complex dredging operations had to be performed very carefully in order to avert any damage to the hull,” Dawoud told the Weekly. All possible precautions were taken. The dredgers alternatively ran and slowed down in stages, operating at a distance of 10 metres from the hull. After more than 20,000 m3 of sand had been excavated from around the hull, the tugboats took over in order to dislodge and float the ship.

Ten tugboats, including two extra-powerful ones with a 160-ton tugging capacity, were attached to the sides of the hull in order to pull it away from the bank. Only after the stern was released and the engine turned on to ensure that the propellers were unobstructed did the salvage crews breathe a sigh of relief at the near success of their mission.

Stranding incidents are not unprecedented. However, according to Dawoud, the majority of cases involve only one end of the vessel and are quickly remedied within at most two days, depending on the tide which can help with the refloating process.

“The problem with the recent stranding was that both the bow and the stern ran aground, which complicated the scenarios to remedy it. With the ship wedged in at both ends, there was no place the tugboats could tug to. One alternative was to lighten the load by reducing the ballast, dumping fuel, or unloading cargo. But this is not an easy task with a cargo ship of this sort, because of the height of the container stacks,” Dawoud said.

“Special cranes would have to be brought in for the purpose, and there would have to be a suitable area where they could be taken and temporarily stored. Therefore, the best option was to remove the earth beneath the two ends of the hull using the SCA’s Mashhour and 10th of Ramadan dredgers. If this operation had yielded no results, unloading would have come as a last resort.”

In Dawoud’s opinion, the reason the incident received such sensational international media coverage was because the blockage occurred in the most-important maritime route in the world.

“No other maritime corridor in the world has the problems that we encountered, problems that exceed the capacities of any state. No government should be expected to purchase costly equipment and facilities that would only be used for a problem that might occur once every 10 or 15 years. This is why there are international salvage and maintenance companies that offer their services to governments. Therefore, to claim that the Suez Canal Authority did not respond well to the crisis does it a huge injustice,” he said. 

Captain Mohamed Nehad Khalil, head of the Marine Department at the United Arab Shipping Company, dismissed talk of a “conspiracy”.

“A vessel entering the canal with the purpose of deliberately running aground to cause a blockage would be something that could not be concealed from the state’s sovereign agencies. Moreover, Suez Canal pilots are always stationed on board ships to help them navigate through the canal, and they would contact the authority in the event of any differences they might have with the captain over any technical matter or if they noticed anything out of the ordinary that might affect the safety of the water course. The Suez Canal guidance pilots are highly capable and vigilant,” Khalil said.

How it happened
How it happened

ALTERNATIVES: On the possibility of using alternative routes to the Suez Canal, such as the northern polar passage, Khalil said that “theoretically the distance between China and the US is shorter through the polar route than through the Suez Canal. With global warming, the transit season has extended to four months, instead of two to three months, and perhaps an additional month more using ice-breakers. Nevertheless, there are several problems with that route that limit it as an alternative to the Suez Canal.

“Firstly, the area is not equipped to receive mega-container ships, especially those with the depth of the latest generation. Nor does it have the necessary port facilities. Then, there is the problem of the strain on crews that have to tolerate the extreme cold. At all events, it will take years before the necessary developments can take place. The existing plans and estimates are looking at 2050, by which time they predict that transit will have increased to eight months a year due to global warming,” he said.

What about Israel’s plan to dig a parallel canal from Eilat to Haifa, a source of some rumours? “This is not feasible due to the rocky nature of the terrain,” Khalil answered.

He has had personal experience of managing sister ships to the Ever Given freighter. “I’ve come across these types of problems in ports and even at sea,” he told the Weekly. “Fortunately, they have not occurred in the Suez Canal. In most cases, the problems have had to do with a sudden malfunction in the ship’s steering system, established in the course of investigations. It is highly likely that a sudden system malfunction was the cause of the recent incident in the Suez Canal.

“The integrated information or navigation systems have to process such a large amount of information that this can cause a sudden freeze. This might lead to a malfunction in the steering system or rudder-control mechanisms, which are controlled by electronic control circuits,” Khalil said.

He said that this type of problem had arisen with the Ever Given’s sister ships but had been resolved through modifications to their systems. But this did not dispense with the need for crews to take certain measures before entering a narrow passageway such as the Suez Canal.

“They need to conduct a thorough and comprehensive inspection and test of all the equipment, including systems, generators, engines, and steering mechanisms, before entering. The crew has to keep in mind that just because a malfunction has not happened before it will not happen in the future. They have to take all necessary precautions and intervene quickly if need be. Nor does this rule out what I mentioned before, namely an electronic malfunction, which can happen at any time.”

Khalil added that a huge quantity of information will be needed in order to pinpoint the cause of the Ever Given’s stranding. This, he said, would be found in the Voyage Data Recorder (VDR) of the ship.

“This is equivalent to the black box in an airplane. It records all the communications between the captain, pilot, and steering crew, and all the data on the operations of the various systems, engines, and other equipment. This data can either confirm or deny some kind of system malfunction. Without such data and information, you only have hypotheses and conjectures,” Khalil said.

 He added that the captain is always held immediately responsible for a problem unless investigations establish that the fault lay in the equipment and systems, in which case the manufacturers are held responsible.

Khalil said he had come across a case similar to the Ever Given incident near Singapore. In that case, there had been a sudden disruption in the rudder-steering system, so a special emergency system kicked in. The difference there was that the maritime passage was larger than the Suez Canal, offering much more moving room.

“But it is hard to conceive that the Suez Canal can be broadened in that area because of the rocky nature of the terrain. It would not be economically viable to broaden it there. It would probably be more viable to dig a parallel canal from Ismailia to Port Said,” he commented.

According to Farid Al-Hawari, former director of salvage operations at the SCA, the biggest grounding accidents he had dealt with occurred in 1978 and 1995. The latter was the most similar to the Ever Given incident and had involved a petroleum tanker which had run aground at the 73km mark in Ismailia, causing a three-day blockage. The ship’s petroleum cargo was removed, lightening the weight enough to enable refloating using tugboats.

“The Panama-flagged ship was much more difficult and complex because of its huge size, a length much longer than the 160-metre width of the canal, and its hundreds of thousands of tons of cargo. Dealing with that required special care in order to safeguard both the ship and its freight,” Al-Hawari said.

“There were only two possible ways. One would be to unload it, which would have been extremely difficult as it would involve emptying it out from the inside rather than from the deck. This would have been impossible to achieve in a reasonable amount of time, given the lack of facilities in the area where the ship ran aground and the lack of an appropriate storage place nearby. Therefore, the only alternative was to use dredgers to excavate around 20,000 m3 of earth from below each end of the hull and then use tugboats to pull it away from the banks and point it in the right direction.”

Al-Hawari added that the SCA’s successful salvage operation had been highly instructive for all. “We have gained considerable scientific and technical expertise in handling this type of problem,” he said, adding that the incident had also drawn attention to the need to equip that area of the canal.

“The investment will contribute to augmenting national income, and at the same time it will improve the ability to intervene rapidly with the appropriate technology if needed,” he concluded.



*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under headline: How it happened


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