Analysis

What the Ever Given Taught the World

The ship that blocked the Suez Canal is now repaired, but consumers and governments ignore its lessons at their peril.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
The Ever Given after repairs on Nov. 7.
The Ever Given after repairs on Nov. 7. Courtesy of Elisabeth Braw

On March 29, after six days being stuck in the Suez Canal and blocking all other ships from sailing through the vital passage, the Ever Given was unmoored. Excavation crews had worked around the clock to dig the enormous container ship out, and thanks to their work it was able to sail on. On July 7, the Ever Given left Egyptian waters—seaworthy but damaged. This Thursday, the ship is expected to leave a Chinese port where the damage it sustained in the Suez Canal has been repaired. And the mighty vessel’s fate has crucial lessons for everyone who depends on shipping. That’s every single one of us.

For six days earlier this year, the world’s eyes were on the Suez Canal when the Ever Given—a member of the class of so-called ultra-large container vessels (ULCVs)—got stuck in the narrow waterway. For those six intense days, rescue crews dug, drilled, and pulled while the world watched the spectacle with intense fascination. And the Ever Given’s fate mattered far beyond cybergawkers’ sudden interest in massive container ships in distress: It mattered because every day the Ever Given blocked the canal, dozens of ships carrying billions of dollars’ worth of cargo had to wait to enter the waterway.

The resulting supply chain delays are still reverberating months after the incident. After finally being dislodged, the Ever Given was pulled by several tugboats to the adjoining Great Bitter Lake, where a new crew of Indian seafarers took over. The retrieval crew that arrived in the Great Bitter Lake was led by Capt. Hanse Kurisinkal, a highly experienced Indian officer who has worked on ULCVs pretty much since they entered the seas.

On March 29, after six days being stuck in the Suez Canal and blocking all other ships from sailing through the vital passage, the Ever Given was unmoored. Excavation crews had worked around the clock to dig the enormous container ship out, and thanks to their work it was able to sail on. On July 7, the Ever Given left Egyptian waters—seaworthy but damaged. This Thursday, the ship is expected to leave a Chinese port where the damage it sustained in the Suez Canal has been repaired. And the mighty vessel’s fate has crucial lessons for everyone who depends on shipping. That’s every single one of us.

For six days earlier this year, the world’s eyes were on the Suez Canal when the Ever Given—a member of the class of so-called ultra-large container vessels (ULCVs)—got stuck in the narrow waterway. For those six intense days, rescue crews dug, drilled, and pulled while the world watched the spectacle with intense fascination. And the Ever Given’s fate mattered far beyond cybergawkers’ sudden interest in massive container ships in distress: It mattered because every day the Ever Given blocked the canal, dozens of ships carrying billions of dollars’ worth of cargo had to wait to enter the waterway.

The resulting supply chain delays are still reverberating months after the incident. After finally being dislodged, the Ever Given was pulled by several tugboats to the adjoining Great Bitter Lake, where a new crew of Indian seafarers took over. The retrieval crew that arrived in the Great Bitter Lake was led by Capt. Hanse Kurisinkal, a highly experienced Indian officer who has worked on ULCVs pretty much since they entered the seas.

Global supply chain delays are still reverberating months after the ship got stuck in the Suez Canal.

Both Kurisinkal’s crew and the crew they replaced were fortunate that the Ever Given has a reputable owner and a similarly reputable management company. In many other cases, crews of cargo ships stuck in ports or even offshore for various reasons are simply abandoned by the ship’s owner. As I’ve previously reported in Foreign Policy, every year dozens of crews are left on their ships—without fuel, food, and even water—for months, sometimes even years, relying on charities and seafarer unions for their survival.

Until July, when Egyptian authorities and the Ever Given’s insurer finally agreed on an undisclosed compensation payment for the rescue operation, the Ever Given and its new crew couldn’t go anywhere. Their departure that day generated considerable press coverage—but since then, virtually nothing has been heard from the ill-fated ship. This is the story, based on exclusive interviews with industry insiders, of what happened next.


The damaged part of the Ever Given container ship at a ship-repairing dock in Qingdao, China, on Oct. 4.

The damaged part of the Ever Given container ship at a ship-repairing dock in Qingdao, China, on Oct. 4. Li Ziheng/Xinhua via Getty Images

On July 13, the Ever Given set sail for Rotterdam in the Netherlands. On board was not just the crew of some two dozen men under Kurisinkal’s command but also about 20,000 containers the Ever Given had been carrying when it got stuck in the Suez Canal. The crew knew that much of the content onboard was perishable. Ordinarily that’s fine, because containers are refrigerated, but would it be OK after more than three months? The crew couldn’t know. Shortly after 5 a.m. on July 29, they arrived on the Ever Given in Rotterdam, their first stop, and then sailed on to the British port of Felixstowe for their second scheduled stop in early August. The state of the goods bound for those ports, and subsequent ports, could only be assessed once local staff opened the containers.

Ordinarily, ships take new cargo as soon as they’ve offloaded some, but with the Ever Given’s state unclear, it could only shed goods. According to Maritime Executive, a trade publication, the Ever Given’s owner—the Japanese firm Shoei Kisen Kaisha—declared what could be described in laymen’s terms as a contingency situation, which obliged customers to pay a fee to be able to retrieve their goods. While much of the cargo consisted of nonperishable goods such as bicycles and Ikea furniture parts, the perishable goods were hardly usable after an additional four months at sea. Such goods, Maritime Executive noted, are usually auctioned off or discarded.

By early August, having delivered its cargo, the Ever Given set off—with Kurisinkal and his crew but without cargo—for repairs in China, a trip that once again took it through the fateful Suez Canal and then through the narrow Singapore Strait. In mid-September, the Ever Given arrived at the Qingdao dry dock on China’s northeast coast. In early October, it finally received a slot at the dock, which functions as a global hospital for ailing ships. The damage covered only a small part of the ship’s surface. While photos show a lacerated bow, the damage was not disastrous. But every day the ship spends in the hospital causes heavy losses to its owner, Shoei Kisen Kaisha. Kurisinkal and his crew, meanwhile, have been using the time to carry out thorough maintenance of the ship.

What if one of the Ever Given’s fellow ULCVs gets stuck? Or what if someone tries to harm one of them?

On Thursday, the Ever Given is expected to be released from the maritime hospital. Barring any delays, Kurisinkal and his crew will then bring it to Malaysia, where they will say goodbye and another crew will take over. Then the Ever Given will receive its first post-accident cargo, and soon it will be crossing oceans with some 20,000 containers again. But its fate has demonstrated how fragile these queens of the ocean are.

The world’s consumers consume ever-more goods and parts from other countries, often without knowing those products’ origins. In 1975, a daily average of 27 vessels transporting an average load of 242 tons traveled through the Suez Canal. By 2019, that rose to 52 ships with an average load of 3,307 tons. What’s more, consumers also assume that every product will be smoothly delivered to them. But what if one of the Ever Given’s fellow ULCVs gets stuck? Or what if someone tries to harm one of them?

As maritime analyst Cormac Mc Garry from the consultancy Control Risks told me, “The broader concern with megaships is that we are pouring highly concentrated volumes of our critical supply chains into vulnerable positions, so we are losing the spread of risk. It leaves businesses more exposed to singular, isolated events. And it’s not just wind that threatens to stop these ships.” A country intent on disrupting supply chains could decide to target a ULCV. Indeed, Iran and Israel seem to be engaged in an on-and-off proxy war that involves harming each other’s vessels.

“Handling of these vessels is very different, because they’re so big, and they’re new,” an officer who has spent several years on ULCVs told me. “One of the most challenging aspects is that they navigate in the front rather in the back. When you stand on the bridge you have 250 meters astern of you.” (The officer asked not to be named as he’s not authorized to speak with the media.) Try looking 250 meters, about 820 feet, behind you, and you’ll get an idea of the task at hand.

Another challenge is the vessels’ load. Carrying over 20,000 containers adds massive weight, an aspect accounted for in ULCVs’ design. But the containers stacked on the ship also amount to a high wall that can distort the wind. “With so many containers, you get a massive windage area,” the ULCV officer told me. “That means the wind has huge effect, and you easily drift. When I saw the news from the Suez Canal, I knew it must have been windage. Then I checked the winds and saw there had been strong winds.”

ULCV crews were already concerned about winds in the Suez Canal, and the ULCV officer said he’ll be even more vigilant regarding winds now. But that’s easier said than done. There are often strong winds in the Suez Canal. If that weather is predicted, the captain and the navigator may prefer to wait to enter the canal. That, however, would set the ship back by valuable hours or even a day. “Nowadays there’s a lot of commercial pressure on crews to keep schedules, and this has been heightened due to huge demand of cargo post-pandemic,” the officer said. Such pressure can cloud captains’ and navigators’ judgement.

When consumers around the world buy the goods they need, they pay virtually no attention to how those goods travel. That travel is a marvel of speed and efficiency—but because consumers want low prices, shipping companies have to keep their fees artificially low. That means stacking ever-more containers on ever-larger vessels. And the commercial pressure that stems from global consumers may cause crews to enter the Suez Canal and other extremely narrow bodies of water even when the wind seems too strong.

The Ever Given has delivered a lesson to everyone who depends on shipping: don’t take your constant supply of goods for granted. And don’t complain if a product or component arrives late. Chances are the crew was behaving prudently—thus averting a disastrous disruption of global shipping.

Elisabeth Braw is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on defense against emerging national security challenges, such as hybrid and gray-zone threats. She is also a member of the U.K. National Preparedness Commission. Twitter: @elisabethbraw

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