The Ever Given container ship blocking transit along the Suez Canal in Ismailia, Egypt on March 28, 2021. Picture: ISLAM SAFWAT/BLOOMBERG
The Ever Given container ship blocking transit along the Suez Canal in Ismailia, Egypt on March 28, 2021. Picture: ISLAM SAFWAT/BLOOMBERG

London —Capt Krishnan Kanthavel watched the sun rise over the Red Sea through a dusty haze. Winds of more than 60km/h whipping off the Egyptian desert, had turned the sky an anaemic yellow. From his viewpoint on the bridge, it was just possible to see the outlines of the 19 other vessels anchored in Suez Bay, waiting for their turn to enter the narrow channel snaking inland towards the Mediterranean.

Kanthavel’s container vessel was scheduled to be the 13th ship travelling north through the Suez Canal on March 23. His was one of the largest in the queue. It was also one of the newest and most valuable, only a few years out of the shipyard. Ever Given, the name painted in block letters on its stern, stood out in white against the forest-green hull. Soon after daybreak, a small craft approached, carrying the local pilots, from the SCA (Suez Canal Authority), who would guide the ship during its 12-hour journey between the seas.

Transiting the Suez Canal is sometimes nerve-racking. The channel saves a three-week detour around Africa, but it’s narrow, about 200m wide in parts, and just 24m deep. Modern ships, by contrast, are huge and getting bigger. The Ever Given is 400m from bow to stern and nearly 60m across — most of the width of a city block, and almost as long as the Empire State Building is high. En route from Malaysia to the Netherlands, it was loaded with about 17,600 brightly coloured containers. Its keel would be only a few metres from the canal bottom. That didn’t leave much room for error.

After climbing aboard, the two Egyptian pilots were led up to the bridge to meet the captain, officers, and helmsmen, all of them Indian, like the rest of the crew. According to documents filed weeks later in an Egyptian court, there was a dispute at some point about whether the ship should enter the canal at all, given the bad weather — a debate that may have been hampered by the fact that English was neither side’s first language. At least four nearby ports had already closed because of the storm, and a day earlier the captain of a natural-gas carrier sailing from Qatar had decided it was too gusty to traverse Suez safely.

Like planes, modern ships carry voyage data recorders, or VDRs, black-box devices that capture conversations on the bridge. The full recording of what transpired on the Ever Given’s bridge hasn’t been released by the Egyptian government, so it isn’t clear what the pilots and crew said about the conditions. But the commercial pressures on Kanthavel, an experienced mariner from Tamil Nadu, in India’s far south, would have been enormous. His ship was carrying about $1bn worth of cargo, including Ikea furniture, Nike sneakers, Lenovo laptops and 100 containers of an unidentified flammable liquid.

Veteran captains say they often don’t have much choice about sailing into Suez in poor conditions. “Do it, or we’ll find someone else who will,” they’re sometimes told. But modern ships have radar and electronic sensors that technically allow the canal to be navigated even in zero visibility. And Kanthavel had ample experience navigating Suez.

From the bridge, Kanthavel could see about 800m ahead. Other vessels in the northbound convoy were on the move, gliding past the tall cranes at the canal’s mouth. The captain could still have refused to proceed, but with an all-clear from the agency that manages the waterway, and with everyone eager to get going, he carried on. The lead Egyptian pilot leant into his radio and had a brief conversation in Arabic between bursts of static. Then he instructed the bridge crew to power forward. As the scattered settlements around the port gave way to bare desert, the Ever Given cruised past a large sign that read “welcome to Egypt”.

A satellite image shows the Suez Canal blocked by the stranded container ship. Picture: ROSCOSMOS/REUTERS
A satellite image shows the Suez Canal blocked by the stranded container ship. Picture: ROSCOSMOS/REUTERS

A few miles into the Ever Given’s transit, the ship began to veer alarmingly from port to starboard and back again. Its blocky shape may have been acting as a gigantic sail, buffeted by the wind. The lead SCA pilot began barking instructions at the Indian helmsman to steer hard right, then hard left. The Ever Given’s vast hull took so long to respond that by the time it began to move, he needed to correct course again. When the second pilot objected, the two argued.

The lead pilot then gave a new order: “Full ahead.” That would take the Ever Given’s speed to 13 knots, or 24km/h, much faster than the canal’s recommended speed limit of about 8 knots. The second pilot tried to cancel the order, and more angry words were exchanged. Kanthavel intervened, and the lead pilot responded by threatening to leave the vessel, according to the court evidence.

The increase in power should have provided the Ever Given with more stability in the face of the gale, but it also brought a new factor into play. Bernoulli’s principle, named for an 18th-century Swiss mathematician, states that a fluid’s pressure goes down when its speed goes up. The hundreds of thousands of tonnes of canal water the ship was displacing had to squeeze through the narrow gap between its hull and the nearest shore. As the water rushed through, the pressure would have decreased, sucking the Ever Given closer to the bank. The faster it went, the greater the pull.

“Speeding up to a certain point is effective, then it becomes countereffective,” Chris Gillard, a Suez veteran as former officer at Danish shipping giant AP Moller-Maersk, said. “You won’t be steering a straight line no matter what you do.”

Suddenly, it became clear the Ever Given was going to crash. Though no footage of the incident has been made public, the final few seconds would have unfolded with the horrible slowness of a collapsing building — a gigantic object surrendering to invisible forces. According to a person familiar with the VDR audio, Captain Kanthavel reacted as anyone might in the same situation. “Shit!” he screamed. 

The Suez Canal is the essential link between East and West. Before it existed, mariners had to brave pirates and violent storms by sailing around the Cape of Good Hope, while merchants travelling on land risked robbery or worse as they crossed the desert.

Today 19,000 vessels a year pass through the canal, loaded with more than a billion tonnes of goods. With tolls that can run as high as $1m for the largest ships, the SCA brings Egypt about $5bn annually. The government is understandably touchy about any suggestion that it’s not an ideal custodian for one of the world economy’s most critical assets. 

Early on March 23, Capt Mohamed Elsayed Hassanin was just starting his shift in the control tower atop the SCA’s headquarters in Ismailia, about 80km north of the Ever Given’s position. As pilots radioed in to say that ship No. 13 in the northbound convoy had run aground, the results, captured by the CCTV cameras that line the waterway, were being displayed on a flickering monitor in front of Elsayed’s command post. No-one in the control tower had seen anything like it: the vessel was wedged diagonally across the channel. When the camera zoomed in, Elsayed could see the forlorn figure of Kanthavel standing on the Ever Given’s bridge.

It was clear, Elsayed said in an interview, that the Ever Given was stuck in one of the worst possible spots: a one-way section of the canal. He decided to take a look for himself.

On board, he asked Kanthavel about the Ever Given’s hull, the weight of its cargo, and the amount of water in its ballast tanks. If they could lighten its load, the extra buoyancy might help lift it off the bank. Elsayed did some quick mental arithmetic. Getting the vessel 1m out of the water would require removing 20,000 tonnes of cargo — an enormous undertaking even if the SCA could find a crane tall enough to reach the containers piled more than 50m above the surface.

First on the scene was a single yellow digger, sent by a contractor working nearby. The driver started scraping scoopfuls of rocky earth from around the bow. He was terrified, he later told Insider, that the metal behemoth looming over him would topple and crush him. The comical image of the lonely excavator alongside the ship went viral, and for the first time in its history, Suez was both a vital commercial passage and a meme.

Keith Svendsen was driving to work in The Hague when his phone rang. One of his colleagues from APMT, a Netherlands-based operator of container ports, had news: there was some sort of trouble in Suez.

APMT provides a link between land and sea, loading and unloading about 32,000 ships a year in some 70 ports around the world, in an unceasing ballet of cranes and metal boxes.

Captain Mohamed Elsayed Hassanin in the control room. Picture: 731/BLOOMBERG
Captain Mohamed Elsayed Hassanin in the control room. Picture: 731/BLOOMBERG

Svendsen, APMT’s COO, wasn’t overly concerned. Mishaps in Suez weren’t uncommon and could usually be resolved within hours.

It was soon apparent to Svendsen, though, that the Ever Given’s incident was well out of the ordinary.

Like car manufacturing and supermarket distribution, modern cargo shipping is a just-in-time business, built around the expectation that goods will arrive precisely when needed. Before containers were widely adopted in the 1970s, it could take a week or more to empty a large ship and then refill it. Today, vessels carrying 10,000 containers or more might spend just hours in a port, unloaded by automated cranes guided by sophisticated planning algorithms. It takes only a single problem in the supply chain for everything to seize up.

By the end of the day on March 24, 185 vessels were anchored nearby waiting to pass. A shipping journal estimated that $10bn worth of marine traffic per day was piling up.

Help was on its way from Europe: a team from SMIT Salvage had been hired by the Ever Given’s owners in Japan. Salvors are like a 24/7 rescue service for the high seas. When a cruise liner starts to sink or an oil tanker is set alight, salvage crews rush to the scene to recover people, cargo, and equipment. It’s one of the world’s most adrenaline-soaked professions.

SMIT put out a call to its partners and contractors, seeking the most powerful tugs they could find. The available ones included a sizeable Italian-owned boat, the Carlo Magno, already en route to Egypt from the Red Sea, a few days away. The Alp Guard, a Dutch behemoth with 280 tonnes of pulling power, was also days out.

The Alp Guard roared into view on Sunday, March 28, almost six days after the Ever Given got stuck. There was a supermoon that night, unusually close to Earth, and its gravity would pull the tide to the highest it had been, or would be, for weeks. If the salvage crews were going to free the Ever Given without unloading it, this was the moment.

Then Elsayed proposed a novel idea: instead of using the tugs only at high tide, they could also pull as the tide went out. It wasn’t quite established salvage wisdom, but having battled the current for days, Elsayed thought it might work.

The waters peaked at midnight. In the early hours of March 29, crew ran a cable from the ship to the Alp Guard. The tug was so powerful that they needed to coil the cable around four metal bollards set in the Ever Given’s hull to prevent the anchor points from fracturing under the strain. Then the Alp Guard began to pull.

As dawn broke with the tide low, some of the tug captains realised they were no longer treading water. They were moving, very slowly. The back end of the Ever Given was drifting silently, inch by inch, away from the bank. The bow remained anchored in the sand, but the ship was only half stuck.

Ships and boats are seen at the entrance of Suez Canal on March 29, 2021 as work to free the Ever Given continues. Picture: MAHMOUD KHALED/GETTY IMAGES
Ships and boats are seen at the entrance of Suez Canal on March 29, 2021 as work to free the Ever Given continues. Picture: MAHMOUD KHALED/GETTY IMAGES

The second large tug, the Carlo Magno, arrived soon after and joined the Alp Guard in pulling from the rear. For hours, both tugs went flat out but they were now working against the tide. They quit at lunchtime, having made no visible progress.

Then the SMIT team suggested the Ever Given take on 2,000 tonnes of ballast water in its stern, to lift its bow a few inches out of the silt. At about 2pm, Elsayed ordered all the tugs to try again. The tide had turned. As he’d suspected, it was just enough.

Elsayed was on the Ever Given’s bridge with Capt Kanthavel when the bow began to move, slowly at first, then all at once. One of the ropes binding the bow to the shore snapped, making a sound like a rifle shot. Then another. Then another. But the final one held, just long enough to stop the Ever Given from swinging across the channel. Kanthavel powered up the engines.

At the sight of the Ever Given moving under its own steam, the tug crews cheered and sounded their horns. On the bridge, the Indian officers whooped and embraced the SMIT salvors.

Elsayed allowed himself the briefest moment of celebration. “Al-Hamdulillah,” he murmured: all praise be to God. Then got back to work. More than 400 ships were waiting to enter the canal.

It took six days to clear the queue.

For most, the Suez Canal went back to being a largely invisible fulcrum of global trade. Within the shipping industry, though, a the conversation turned to blame. Who was at fault? And who would pay?

On April 13, the SCA secured an Egyptian court order to “arrest”, or seize, the Ever Given. The agency said it was seeking almost $1bn from the ship’s owner, Shoei Kisen Kaisha: $272m in expenses, a salvage bonus of $300m, and a further $344m in damages, including “moral losses”.

The "Welcome to Egypt" sign can be seen across the Suez Canal in Ismailia, Egypt after the Ever Given was finally freed by salvage teams. Picture: MAHMOUD KHALED/GETTY IMAGES
The "Welcome to Egypt" sign can be seen across the Suez Canal in Ismailia, Egypt after the Ever Given was finally freed by salvage teams. Picture: MAHMOUD KHALED/GETTY IMAGES

The SCA’s lawyer argued that it had saved the Ever Given almost single-handedly. “If it were not for the refloating operation, we could have witnessed a catastrophe,” he said.

Ever Green's lawyer El Swefy countered.

No-one could doubt the heroism of the SCA, but his praise was the prelude to a surprise attack. He said Shoei Kisen Kaisha had tried and failed to negotiate a settlement with the agency. Thus he had no choice but to submit recordings from the Ever Given’s voyage data recorder. What they revealed was “chaos”, he said. “Enter, no don’t enter, the wind is high, the wind isn’t high.” The pilots got into an argument and were “calling each other names”, in an exchange so heated one of them threatened to leave the ship.

In the end, the judges kicked the case to another court. The SCA has reduced its claim to about $550m and, at the time of writing, the Ever Given’s insurers have announced they have reached an “agreement in principle” to resolve the dispute, without disclosing its terms. Even if that deal is finalised, a protracted legal battle may still take place beyond Egypt.

In London’s admiralty courts, where most big-money marine cases are decided, Shoei Kisen Kaisha has filed an application to limit its maximum liability from any lawsuits. The filing lists 16 entities that might seek damages, most of them the owners of other vessels affected by the blockage. There could also be fights over financial responsibility among the owner, its insurers, and their reinsurers, who protect insurers against excess claims. The merry-go-round of litigation might drag on for years. 

Bloomberg Businessweek. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com.

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