Suez Canal blockage: Key questions answered

What factors might have been at play in the Ever Given's historic grounding?

Suez Canal blockage: Key questions answered


By Bethan Moorcraft

Last week, one of the world’s largest container ships – the 400-meter, 224,000-ton Ever Given, lodged in the Suez Canal, disrupting critical trade between Europe and Asia, and creating potentially $40 billion worth of trade disruption. The mega ship was en route to Rotterdam from the Chinese port of Yantian, when she ran aground during high winds and a sandstorm, leaving authorities with a mammoth task to set the vessel free.

To find out more about how the Ever Given became lodged in the Suez Canal, and what factors might have been at play, Insurance Business caught up with Captain Andrew Kinsey (pictured), senior marine risk consultant at Allianz Risk Consulting (ARC). He answers some key questions below:

Is the Suez Canal difficult to navigate?

“In this particular passage of the Suez Canal, it is one-way traffic for these ultra large vessels. The northbound convoy leaves in the morning, and then the southbound convoy will pass in the late evening,” explained Captain Kinsey. “A vessel will navigate and maneuver out of the anchorage in the vicinity of Suez, they will board their Suez pilots, and then they will start their transit through the Canal.”

In the stretch where the Ever Given got into trouble, this is where vessels typically get into their passage routine, where they can transit more comfortably. However, it’s still a very dynamic and narrow passage for large vessels. As Captain Kinsey pointed out: “Any blip can lead to a serious incident. There’s a very small margin for error.”

Is it common for vessels to be grounded in the Suez Canal?

“It’s not common, but it has happened,” said Captain Kinsey. “The dynamics that are at play are hydrodynamic factors that can occur to a ship in any type of passage. These are things that are engrained into all mariners. For the Ever Given, we won’t exactly know what happened until we study the voyage data recorder on the vessel. Some key issues are: what speed was the vessel traveling at the time of the incident? If the vessel was speeding up or going faster, any type of bow cushion or bank suction can be exasperated, and that can cause a sudden and violent shear turning of the vessel.

“We also need to know what the environment was like at the time. What are the anemometer readings? What was the breeze? Were there any machinery issues? Were there any issues with steering or propulsion? These are all things that have to be looked at holistically. We need the full picture to understand what factors were at play, so that we can finally get to the root cause.”

Is there a size limit for vessels that can pass through the Suez Canal?

The Ever Given is one of the largest container ships currently navigating the world’s oceans. But there are larger vessels, including ultra large crude carriers (ULCCs) that can and do transit through the Suez Canal in light conditions. As a sea level canal, the Suez Canal has the ability to handle larger vessels than the Panama Canal, which is a lock system. It’s the size of the channel that limits the size of the vessel. In the past several years, there have been dredging operations to increase the depth of the Suez Canal so that it can cater to larger vessels.

What are the impacts of sandstorms on ultra large container vessels?

“Spring sandstorms are not uncommon in that region of the world,” Captain Kinsey told Insurance Business. “A reduction in visibility does not equate to a lack of navigational capacity of a vessel. If it did, we wouldn’t be sailing at night. Can heavy winds have an impact on the maneuvering of these vessels? Yes, most definitely - and you plan accordingly. You can reduce speed, and you make sure that you have your best and most experienced helmsman on duty so they don’t get confused or flustered, because helm orders get a little busy in bad weather. There are many factors at play, but as far as stopping transit of the Suez Canal due to weather – that’s extremely rare.”

In certain stretches of the Suez Canal, vessels are able to hold or stop in the event of a serious sandstorm. But in the case of the Ever Given, only one vessel was affected. A number of vessels passed ahead of her without any problems, and the vessels behind the Ever Given were able to stop in time so that there wasn’t any collision.

Who was piloting the Ever Given through the Suez Canal?

Every large vessel that passes through the Suez Canal will board a Suez pilot, who will play an advisory role to the shipmaster. These very experienced pilots do not captain the vessels; rather, they use their local knowledge to advise and give helm demands. Whether the situation with the Ever Given was down to human error remains yet to be seen, but as Captain Kinsey pointed out: “With a vessel as large as the Ever Given, it is only the most senior Suez Canal pilots who are given those assignments. They’re very experienced individuals.”

What does remediation look like for an event like this?

According to Captain Kinsey, there are several lines that remediation must follow, including recovery of the vessel, dealing with the cargo on the vessel, and, most importantly, getting the Suez Canal back up and running.

“When the Ever Given is freed, the first questions are: Where is it going? And what condition is she in?” he said. “Since her grounding, there will have been inspection of the fuel tanks in both the bow and the stern, because both were impacted on either side of the canal. Is the vessel still capable of maneuvering? Has there been any damage to the steering, the propulsion, the shaft, or the stern tube? Can the vessel operate under its own power? Structurally, is there anything in the hull of the vessel that has suffered a failure? Luckily, it was just sand and mud, not rock, in the area, but they’ll have to make sure there wasn’t any penetration of the hull, especially in the bulbous bow area.”

The ballast water and fuel will also be transferred away from the Ever Given in order to make both ends as light as possible so the vessel can be freed both from the bow and the stern. Once she is free, her structural condition will be verified, the vessel will be moved, and the canal will be cleared as quickly as possible. This clearing might require extra dredging, Captain Kinsey added, especially if particulate has built around the Ever Given while she’s been grounded.

“Then we have to look at the cargo on the vessel,” he said. “Where’s that going? Will the vessel be able to proceed to its original destination, or now that we’re in an insurance general average situation, do we have to look at discharging the vessel at a different port and going into a salvage? There are a lot of moving pieces to this situation right now.”

What’s the wider impact of this event?

“I think it highlights the delicate nature of the supply chain,” Captain Kinsey commented. “This has been a monumental year of stresses on the global supply chain. I don’t believe many people understand or understood prior to this past year, how a disruption in one part of the globe could have such a profound effect on supply at another part of the globe. And I just feel that an incident like this once again highlights some of the challenges of offshoring and the just-in-time delivery profile that we have.

“If I was looking at what we can do to make our supply chain more robust, I’d be looking at some diversification of production and also some increasing in warehousing. I know people don’t like to have extra stock, but when you’re dealing with just-in-time delivery, and we’re looking at what’s happening on ship manufacturing and even plastic productions in the Gulf, as a result of weather, this just highlights how delicate and fragile that supply chain can be in a global economy.”

This is a developing news story. The facts and opinions shared in this article were accurate at the time of writing.

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