Big Boat, Very Stuck

SOS! Photo: Suez Canal Authority/Handout/AFP via Getty Images

Ahoy, please! Huge boat news on the horizon — namely that one has lodged itself in the throat of global commerce, and nobody knows how to knock it loose. Powerful winds reportedly blew a container ship called the Ever Given sideways this week, causing it to run aground as it passed through Egypt’s Suez Canal, en route from China to the Netherlands. Or, wind was the original explanation; the Suez Canal Authority is now accounting for the possibility that human error may have played a role. Regardless, the Ever Given has been stuck since Tuesday, languishing like “an enormous beached whale” on the Suez’s sandy banks, Peter Berdowski, CEO of the Dutch dredging company Boskalis, told NPR.

Boskalis is among the parties working to return our girl to sea, a process Berdowski predicts “might take weeks.” The Canal Authority has already deployed a number of usually reliable tools to remove it — pointing, ropes, other boats — but so far, this lady is resolute in her position.

All 25 crew members are reportedly safe, and although the incident does not appear to have structurally damaged the ship, it largely refuses to budge. With other vessels queuing up at either end of the canal, the situation is rapidly devolving into a monstrous maritime traffic jam. And despite moving at a positively glacial pace, this calamity has armchair captains riveted. Myself included! Allow me to tell you everything I have learned about the stuck boat.

How big is the boat?

The big boat measures just over 1,300 feet long, which, according to the New York Times, approximates the length of four soccer fields lined up end-to-end.

Why so stuck?

Well, she’s long; much longer than the Suez Canal is wide (250 meters, i.e., a little more than 670 feet). Also, this particular route — 120 miles long, and the fastest line between Asia and Europe — does not offer behemoths like the Ever Given much leeway on either side. She is about 193 feet wide and 52 feet deep, and although the canal is 82 feet deep in the middle, it gets shallow rapidly on either side. Apologies for throwing so much math at you, but you can see how a little listing off course could land a lot of ships in big trouble.

In 2019, over 1.2 billion tons of cargo floated through the Suez on about 19,000 ships. This is a busy shipping corridor, and right now, the Ever Given has blocked traffic in both directions, entrenching herself diagonally across the entire canal. As of Wednesday morning, about 100 ships had bottlenecked at either end, according to the Times. Apparently, the growing snafu stands to ensnare a tenth of the oil the world uses in a day, among many other things, and will almost certainly exacerbate existing shipping issues stemming from the pandemic. The situation is, per Slate, “a little like doing a really bad job parallel parking, except that a good chunk of the global economy grinds to a halt while you try to work yourself free.”

In an effort to avoid the possibility of another toilet paper shortage, some shippers are now routing thwarted vessels around South Africa’s misleadingly named Cape of Good Hope, alternatively known as the “Graveyard of Ships” and the “Cape of Storms.” The Times reports that this long and arduous passage, which wrecked at least 120 ships between 1682 and 1992, birthed the evacuation directive “women and children first!” at the disastrous 1852 sinking of the Birkenhead near “Danger Point.” (193 of 634 people aboard survived.) Just to give you some idea of the Cape’s M.O.

Are there any viable plans to unstick her?

Um! So far, the Suez Canal Authority has tried a bunch of tugboats, combined with machinery, to dig the Ever Given out of the bank. But it’s apparently still very windy out there (fucking wind), and then, she’s still very big — no one can do anything about that — with a towering wall of shipping containers stacked on her deck and functioning like a massive sail, the Times reports. It’s possible that those will have to be removed at some point, if the tugboats cannot make any headway. But unstacking the containers presents its own niche complications, namely the lack of sufficiently tall cranes available in the Ever Given’s immediate vicinity. Giant helicopters have been floated as a possible solution, but the containers themselves may be too heavy to airlift away. Cranes on barges are another potential answer, but they would take time to arrive.

However, if the experts were able to ease her top load somewhat, they could maybe dredge around the stuck ends, pump the water from the ballast, and see where the tugs take her at high tide … provided she has not already tipped over. This, according to Captain John Konrad, founder and CEO of shipping tracker gCaptain, is a risk.

“Things are looking grim,” Konrad explains. in a video laying out the ship’s uninspiring outlook. “The longer it takes, the worse the situation is.”

Has she moved … at all?

Incredibly, yes, she has moved a little: Late on March 27, a chorus of 11 tugs honked in happiness after managing to shift the Ever Given approximately 100 feet or two degrees, the Times reports. Please clap!

To stick with sports comparisons, that’s about a third of a football field’s length, a distance achieved after dredgers managed to dig about 59 feet down on the canal’s east side. The moon has also helped out, drawing higher tides as she approaches peak robustness. (There’s a promising full worm moon tonight, hell yeah.) On Monday, the water level could rise 18 inches, and not a moment too soon because the Ever Given is reportedly beginning to sag in the middle, introducing the dismaying possibility that she could break apart. Today, two more tugs were slated to join the effort.

“Sunday is very critical,” an anonymous pilot told USA Today. “It will determine the next step, which highly likely involves at least the partial offloading of the vessel.”

Is there some sort of boat-cam where I can check on her, see how she’s doing?

Yes! But do not expect any seismic shifts in the Ever Given’s position anytime soon. The more visually captivating portion of her journey actually came before she became wedged in the canal, when she traced a phallic path through the sea:

In any case, concerned parties can track her progress at MyShipTracking.com, VesselFinder.com, and MarrineTracking.com.

Is this beaching unprecedented?

While the Ever Given is reportedly the largest ship ever to find herself marooned in the Suez, she is not the first ship to find herself in a comparable mess. In 1967, 14 cargo ships were stranded (if not lodged) in the canal at the end of the Arab–Israeli War and had to wait there for eight years. More recently, in 2016, a similarly enormous ship called the CSCL Indian Ocean got stuck in the Elbe River en route to Hamburg. “That ship, it took 12 tugs six days to free it,” Konrad recalled in his video. Per the Times, one might attribute this incident to the trend toward megaships incompatible with shipping veins such as the Suez. But me, personally? I am choosing to blame The Wind.

This article has been updated.

Big Boat, Very Stuck