Unseen Forces

Aug 13, 2021


What do unprofessionalism and fluid dynamics have to do with 18 tugboats and a supermoon? One cargo ship, 6 days, and billions of dollars.

So, how did the Ever Given cargo ship go from the Suez Canal to a tourist attraction in The Netherlands? Well, it’s complicated! It all started with a 40 MPH wind, high-pressure decisions, poor communication, and fluid dynamics; it ended with 18 tugboats, one dredger, and a supermoon.1, 2 In 1869, the Suez Canal cut between the African and Asian continents creating the “shortest maritime route from Europe to Asia”. The dangerous 3-week journey around the southern tip of Africa was shortened to 12-hours, allowing safe and efficient passage between the Mediterranean and Red Seas.3

“The Ever Given is 400 meters from bow to stern and nearly 60 meters across—most of the width of a Manhattan city block, and almost as long as the Empire State Building is high. … Its keel would be only a few meters from the canal bottom. That didn’t leave much room for error.” ~ Bloomberg Businessweek

At the mouth of the Suez, one of the “newest and most valuable” ships of the Evergreen fleet was boarded by Egyptian pilots hired to guide the Indian crew of the Ever Given through the canal. At least for the first 90 minutes… Stacked with over 17,000 containers the ship gained speed to counter a 40 MPH wind. Now, speeding at 13 knots, the ship became further disoriented by the Bank Effect: a phenomenon caused by extreme displacement of water pushing the bow and stern in opposite directions due to changes in water pressure. At 7:42AM on March 23, 2021, the Suez was blocked.4 

Why did the Ever Given block the Suez Canal for only six days?

  • Influences: Forces on the massive Ever Given were unseen, but more than 300 ships could be seen by satellite waiting at the entrances of the canal.5 We often see the effects of unseen influences in our work, as well! Unknown pressures, misunderstood intentions, or surprising reactions can leave us bewildered-- especially when we only see the aftermath.
  • Decisions: Weather forecasts warned the crew and pilots the passage could be treacherous. Bloomberg Businessweek reports that captains “don’t have much choice about sailing into Suez in poor conditions. ‘Do it, or we’ll find someone else who will,’”6 Puzzling choices can be made in order to save a job, preserve dignity, or protect the bottom line.
  • Communications: The voyage data recorder captured every word on the bridge. Though the transcript has not been released, witnesses tell of a make-shift team responding to an emergency. Name-calling and a potential language barrier further strained verbal exchanges.7 High-stake situations and complex conditions test even the most seasoned professional.

On the sixth day, it was the combination of dredging sand and a supermoon hightide (forcing water 18” higher than normal) that allowed multiple tugboats to dislodge the ship.8 The Ever Given, bound for The Netherlands, was delayed an additional 106 days as the Suez Canal Authority (initially) sought $900M for salvage operations and other losses.9 Once docked at the Port of Rotterdam, local ferry passengers paid $13 to watch automated cranes unload the Ever Given’s billion-dollar cargo and take on new containers now bound for the United Kingdom.10 In times of chaos, it is easy to miss unseen forces, make confusing decisions, and communicate poorly. Failure to overcome these challenges may cost money, take time, and even establish a temporary tourist attraction. 

Sources: 1, 6, 7 Bloomberg Businessweek: Six Days in Suez: The Inside Story of the Ship That Broke Global Trade; 2 Jalopnik: Meet the Dredgers and Tugboats That Freed the Ever Given; 3 Britannica: Suez Canal; 4 Popular Mechanics: Here’s the Minute-by-Minute Breakdown of the Ever Given’s Crash; 5 USA Today: How did Evergreen's ship get stuck in the Suez Canal and create the world's heaviest traffic jam?; 8 The Wall Street Journal: How a Supermoon Helped Free the Giant Container Ship From the Suez Canal; 9 Reuters: Ever Given Container Ship Leaves Suez Canal 106 Days After Getting Stuck; 10 The Wall Street Journal: The Ever Given, Fresh From Suez, Becomes a Tourist Attraction.

by Michelle Sugerman • Leading Synergies, LLC • © All Rights Reserved

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