How a desert wind diverted $10 billion from global trade

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The forecast for Tuesday, March 23 showed wind gusts of more than 65 kilometers per hour and sandstorms sweeping across northern Egypt. In fact, this type of weather is common in the Sinai Desert at this time of year.

The Suez Canal – one of the most critical and precarious waterways on the planet – was still open. Ships were beginning to form the daily convoy as the gusts increased.One of the world’s largest container ships, the Ever Given, joined it. The consequences of this decision would be visible around the world within hours.

By 7:40 a.m. local time, the mega-ship – loaded with containers stretching end-to-end and carrying everything from frozen fish to furniture – had run aground. This fact would not only expose the complexities of navigating a man-made water trench on a vessel the size of the Eiffel Tower, but also the fragility.

From tracking data and dozens of interviews with locals, what is known is that the Ever Given began to traverse the 300-meter-wide channel while at least one other vessel decided to hold on due to high winds. The Ever Given also did not employ tugs, according to two people with knowledge of the situation, while the two somewhat smaller container ships ahead of it did.

In addition, there was the question of how fast she was going.As the vessel began to approach the sand, it appeared to accelerate, perhaps to correct itself, although it was too late and almost hit the shore. That served to drive the steel hull deeper into the side of the channel. The gusts would also have aggravated what is considered by captains to be one of the toughest water crossings in the world.

“You’re in for a heart-stopping crossing,” said Andrew Kinsey, a former captain who has sailed a 300-meter freighter through the Suez and is now a senior marine risk consultant at Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty. “It’s such a small channel, the winds are very strong and you have a really small margin for error and big consequences if mistakes happen.”

It was not an unseaworthy situation, although the wind was strong enough to close nearby ports. Some boats used tugs or other assistance, others simply passed without incident.

However, at least one ship decided to delay the voyage through the channel. The day before the Ever Given ran aground, the Rasheeda was among the ships approaching the channel from the southern end. Aware of the dangers of the approaching sandstorm and loaded with liquefied natural gas from Qatar, the captain decided not to enter the canal after discussions with other officials of Royal Dutch Shell Plc, which manages the ship, according to two people familiar with the situation.

The Suez Canal Authority said a lack of visibility due to bad weather caused the ship to lose control and drift. It has not commented further. Taiwan’s Evergreen Line, time charterer of the vessel, said by email that the Ever Given “grounded accidentally after drifting off course due to suspected sudden strong wind.”

The vessel’s manager, Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement, said initial investigations suggest the accident was due to wind. An extensive investigation involving several agencies and parties is underway. It will include interviews with the pilots on board and with all bridge personnel and other crew, a company spokesman said.

Meanwhile, the channel remains blocked and the latest reports from people familiar with the rescue effort suggest it will continue until at least Wednesday.

A conduit for 12% of world trade, an average of 50 ships pass through Suez each day in convoys that start early in the morning. The Ever Given began its journey shortly after dawn and picked up two local pilots from the Suez Canal Authority. These come aboard to supervise ships making the journey through the waterway, which can take up to 12 hours. But the authority’s navigation rules clearly state that the captain, shipowners and charterers are responsible for accidents.

The captain of the Ever Given overseeing the bridge had made the trip down the Suez many times before and had handled it through the gusty wind, according to a former crew member. Shipping lines say they use their best captains for Suez because of the delicate nature of the voyage.

But what happened next left $10 billion worth of goods with nowhere to go, with more than 300 ships carrying products from multiple industries now stuck because of the blockade.

The Ever Given lost its course and began to turn onto its starboard side about 5 miles from the mouth of the canal. The 200,000-ton ship drifted to port, and soon turned sideways and ran aground, with its red protruding bow effectively cutting through the water firmly embedded in the sand embankment.

“Here we have a single vessel that is out of place and yet it impacts the entire maritime and global economy,” said Ian Ralby, chief executive of I.R. Consilium, a maritime law and safety consulting firm that works with governments.

Those tasked with figuring out the cause of the accident will undoubtedly look at speed. The ship’s last known speed was 13.5 knots at 7:28 a.m., 12 minutes before the grounding.

This would have exceeded the speed limit of about 7.6 knots (8.7 mph) to 8.6 knots listed as the maximum speed at which vessels are “authorized to transit” the canal, according to the Suez authority’s navigation rules manual published on its website. Captains interviewed for this story said it can pay to increase speed in the face of a strong wind to better maneuver the vessel.

“Speeding up to some extent is effective,” said Chris Gillard, who was captain of a 300-meter container ship that crossed the Suez monthly for nearly a decade until 2019. “More than that and it becomes counter effective because the bow will be sucked deep into the water. So adding too much power only compounds the problem.”

The 300-meter Maersk Denver, which was traveling behind the Ever Given, was also registering a top speed of 10.6 knots at 7:28. A spokesman for Maersk in Denmark declined to comment. Local shipmasters and pilots said it is not unusual to travel through the channel at that speed despite the lower limit.

The Cosco Galaxy, a slightly smaller container ship than the Ever Given, was immediately ahead and appears to have traveled at a similar speed, albeit with a tug. The one ahead of the Cosco, the Al Nasriyah, also carried an escort. Escort is not mandatory, according to the Suez authority’s navigation rules, although the Suez authority can require it of vessels if it deems it necessary.

“Larger vessels usually travel with a tugboat nearby, an escort vessel, to facilitate transit,” said Captain Theologos Gampierakis of commodities trader Trafigura Group in Athens.

A cargo ship with containers stacked high like the Ever Given can be especially difficult to navigate, as the ship’s hull and container wall can act like a huge sail, said Kinsey, the former captain, who made his last voyage through Suez in 2006 .

“You can find yourself positioning the ship in one direction, and you’re actually moving in another direction,” Kinsey said. “There’s a fine line between having enough speed to maneuver and not having too much speed that the air and hydrodynamics become unstable. Any deviation can get very bad very quickly because it’s so tight.”

About 20 minutes after the incident, the first of two tugs accompanying the vessels ahead of the Ever Given again pushed her port side in an effort to dislodge her. Later, eight tugs were deployed to push both sides of the container ship, but without success.

Onshore, officials and investigators were dispatched to the vessel’s location. Excavators tried to make a dent to help free it from the sand embankment.

Source Bloomberg

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