MV Ever Given – lessons from the Suez Canal

Now that the MV Ever Given is underway and making way there is time for a brief period of reflection as the silt settles but before the incident fades from the public eye.

It is probably worth noting that we are not out of this yet. Not only is there a giant ship whose hull is now in an ‘unknown condition’ heading gingerly towards the Bitter Lakes, but there also remains a significant backlog of ships and cargo of all types. Clearing this needs to be done quickly but without haste. Already challenged destination ports and onward supply lines will need to brace for further difficulty over the next few weeks.

Sea blindness

The first (and last) lesson from this incident has to reflect the dependence of the world on maritime trade coupled with an almost total ignorance of how it happens. I say this with the confidence of someone who spent 20 years at sea in warships and yet who only recently developed an understanding of how it all fits together.

We must ask ‘why is it that only when a mistake large enough to be visible from space occurs does the whole business garner headlines?’ The plight of sailors throughout the pandemic and violent piracy off the Gulf of Guinea being two other important and ongoing maritime issues that are really serious but get coverage in the trade press and not much else.

Understanding that the globe is as connected as much by the sea as it is by the internet is part of the solution but that’s a tough sell because it’s not obvious, unlike every time you turn on your phone. And yet almost everything you need to live, everything we as a species needs to survive, arrives by sea. It’s why commentators, such as me, jump on the bandwagon a little when something like this happens, when actually it’s the day-in-day-out efforts of organisations such as The Seafarers’ Charity (and hundreds like it) that make the difference.

Chokepoints

The second is to understand the nature of chokepoints; their vulnerabilities and therefore the measures that can be taken to protect them. Suez is linked to both the Strait of Gibraltar and The Bab el Mandeb. Despite the distances, in trade terms, a blockage in one affects the others almost equally. The Panama canal has obvious similarities to Suez. Hormuz too is noteworthy; not just because of what goes in and out of it but unlike Suez, if it’s blocked (and there is a potential adversary on the doorstep who has an entire playbook dedicated to doing so) there’s no ‘go-around’ alternative. Malacca, Bosporus, Danish, Bering, The High North, Dover…the list goes on. Whilst Panama is the only other one that can be blocked by a grounded ship, they can all be controlled to a greater or lesser extent and the end result would be similar. Looking at China’s activity both in Djibouti and the High North shows how clearly they get this. Against this backdrop, the Royal Navy’s recent decision to forward-base one of their new patrol ships in Gibraltar makes perfect sense.

I mentioned Hormuz and its lack of alternatives. Clearly a major part of this incident was that it took place in a part of the canal were there was also no alternative. Given the expansion work in 2015 this is unfortunate but the requirement to double-lane the entire canal will presumably have to be looked at again. Unlike when county councils in the South of England get rocks thrown at them for not having proper snow mitigation measures in place, I’m not sure lack of money can be used as a reason here. 52 vessels a day x 365 days x c$700k average per vessel comes to more than $13bn per annum. @Suezdiggerguy shouldn’t pack up just yet. At a more tactical level, how ready was the Suez Canal Authority (SCA) to deal with an incident that on any risk matrix would register as ‘low likelihood’ but ‘severe impact’? Initial reports from as close to the incident as I could get are not favourable.

Legislation

Despite my declaration that I now understand this subject, when it comes to legislation, I don’t. In fact, speaking to a few industry insiders over the last few days has made it worse. Let’s start with this:

No real surprise that when I asked my contacts how something like vessel size could be regulated going forward, I got a variety of opinions. Getting anyone to ‘own’ some of these major maritime issues is clearly complex. I have no idea what the answer to this is, I just know that it’s part of the problem.

Safety

The following is a resumé of the safety issues that I hope will be reviewed either as part of this investigation or more broadly.

First, what is the maximum size of ship that can safely operate in the Suez canal? This is a hugely complex question with any number of interrelated dependencies. I started by looking up Suezmax only to find ‘275m’, ‘400m’ and ‘unlimited’ in quick succession – not very helpful. The SCA Rules of Navigation say, “Vessels longer than 400 meters need permission from the Suez Canal Authority to transit the canal.” I’d hope that permission to enter applies to all vessels. So what is it? At what point does the rapid increase in vessel size in the pursuance of economies of scale have to stop, and whose call is that? See above.

Connected to vessel size are safe operating wind limits (from all directions). For example, when HMS Ark Royal went through the Thames Barrier, it was really clear that there was an upper limit assigned to all possible wind directions. If it exceeded those, you’re not going through. Easy. (Didn’t stop the navigator from having sleepless nights, mind.) Is this in place for Suez for different classes of ships or is it all left to a ‘seaman’s eye’? Most of the time this is fine and is what is expected from professional mariners. However, I saw a lot of unsafe navigational practices in uncharted waters in Antarctica based on the ‘I’ve been here before’ method of navigation. I saw a couple come unstuck as well…or stuck to be more precise. We also know that a couple of ships decided to not enter the canal that morning due to the wind and visibility – maybe they had clearly defined entry limits.

The basic point is that the more poorly defined your operating parameters, the more likely it is that your risk management, an everyday part of maritime operations, starts to look like gambling.

I think it’s fair to say that as ships have got bigger and bigger in recent years, their accompanying technology hasn’t improved in lockstep. This is certainly true of something like AIS which is now 20+ years old and hasn’t really changed that much. The tugs are largely the same. What about both redundancy and reliability in ship control systems – how good was it in this case? Plenty of early reports indicated an electrical failure of some sort as the trigger in the chain-of-errors. If that can cause this then are the back-up systems good enough, particularly in these huge ships?

Now we get to the messy part; human factors. John Konrad (gCaptain) and other sage voices have said that there is no doubt that the incident report, which could take up to a year to produce, will likely point to a failure in bridge resource management (BRM). This is when the bridge team fail, normally somewhere between the master and the pilot, either to control the ship effectively or react quickly enough to a trigger (see above). In fact there are now indications that this whole incident could have been a result of something as simple as a language issue between the (Egyptian) Pilot and the (Chinese) Master. We will need to wait for the report to know for certain but one thing is for sure; there are many aspects to this above and beyond the lazy, ‘it was the Captain’s fault’.

Suez pilots have come up a lot in the last week which is unfortunate because incidents like this tend to act as a magnet for unfavourable anecdotes. I was certainly guilty of this when talking to a journalist as I recounted the time I was asked to build a chair for the pilot out of crates and boxes. I neglected to mention the other 10 times when I didn’t have to rearrange the bridge and the whole transit passed with just an exchange of cigarettes. And some perspective is required here:

Source: https://www.agcs.allianz.com/news-and-insights/expert-risk-articles/suez-canal-marine-insurance-claims.html

Nevertheless, the investigation should definitely review how the key parts of the canal ‘system’ are trained, assessed and assured.

Ship handling attracted a lot of commentary, some justified, some speculative. Certainly we know that she was travelling at 13+ knots, some 4 knots over ‘normal’ in the canal. This clip posted by a company I freelance for explains how going faster can help, but also how it can make things worse:

For the same reason that higher speeds will render your thrusters ineffective, the same applies to tugs. Certainly at 13 kts the only thing a tug can do is get in the way. One (cautious) solution would be for mega-ships such as the Ever Given to proceed at a slower speed such that they can take tugs forward and aft for the entire transit. But again, what is the policy in the canal or is it always a judgement call?

Unusually in a grounded vessel, both anchors were close-home (i.e. fully retracted) when it happened. This is unusual because if you know grounding is imminent you would want to drop an anchor as a last ditch to at least slow down a little. That this didn’t happen suggests either a failure in BRM (see above) or it’s possible that the (speculative) electrical failure meant that the bridge couldn’t communicate with the fo’c’sle (see redundancy).

Crew Fatigue will probably feature in the report. These vast ships have a crew of less than 30. Compare that to a destroyer with 200 and a US carrier with 3000+. They are worked very hard and would probably have been up most of the night preparing to enter the canal. What state were they in as the ship entered the narrow channel? There was always a significant disparity between how much sleep bridge watchkeepers got (whatever they could grab) and aviators (whose rest was mandated by law). You can only hear the latter say “you should have tried harder at school” so many times before you begin to think they have a point.

Animal welfare is an subject the true hideousness of which will probably only emerge slowly after this, if at all. It must be looked into though, not filed under ‘too difficult’.

I haven’t heard of any incidents of piracy resulting from this incident (on either side of Africa) but that was definitely a possibility given the confusion and increase in traffic. Most of the rerouted traffic passing the Gulf of Guinea would have been too fast and too far out to sea, but round the Horn, what measures were put in place to protect the vessels backing up there? I have no idea but am sure the likes of the US 5th Fleet and the UK Maritime Commander in Bahrain would have considered their options.

It’s not possible for an incident to happen now without someone saying it was a cyber attack. The ability for adversaries to control ships’ engines is out there but often without reference to how incredibly difficult it is to actually do. But ‘difficult’ doesn’t mean ‘impossible’ so this should feature in the risk and redundancy calculations for chokepoints and maritime operations more generally.

Communications

This is a subject close to my heart, but I should say from the outset that I was tracking this situation as an enthusiastic amateur. No alerts, search strings, monitoring algorithms or data science were deployed, but when @Suezdiggerguy is providing you with better updates that the Suez Canal Authority then you know something is wrong. In fact, the SCA only managed three statements on their webpage during the incident:

The last one even incorrectly stated that the Ever Given was afloat.

Then there was that bizarre video set to dramatic music:

I work a lot in parts of the world where the answer to any communications problem is a video. Most of the time it isn’t. This time it definitely wasn’t.

Then on the morning of 29 Mar, President Sisi declared the crisis over with some bombast:

I’m not sure which is worse; that at the time of the tweet the vessel was still hard aground by the bow or the failure to mention any of the many other countries and agencies who helped, particularly SMIT Salvage, who were clearly outstanding.

As a communications consultant, I see the same thing time and again from CEOs when it comes to preparing for crises:

  1. It won’t happen to me
  2. So I don’t need to prepare
  3. But if it does, I can handle it.

This approach, which we see in organisations of all sizes, in all countries, ensures even the most basic crisis architecture and messages are not in place. So when something does happen, there is either a deafening silence into which adversaries or the Twitterati can pour whatever they like, or overly turgid statements which jar immediately with international ears seeing as they are often inaccurate, inappropriate, plain wrong or a mixture of the above.

In this case, it wasn’t just million pound decisions that needed reliable and timely information coming from the scene. Depending on the cargo, it was people’s lives. When massive shipping companies are making these decision based on open source intelligence (OSINT) and not actual truth then there is a problem.

Summary

In my first serious tweet on this incident I went (probably unwisely) early, saying the incident wasn’t that bad:

Now that she is afloat and heading north again, I’m minded to stick by my original view…just. The point is that this was a single ship running into a soft object. No one was hurt and the hull likely remained intact. Many alternatives do not see this outcome; hitting a wall or a jetty, being hit by the following vessel (good work by them by the way) or veering into one coming the other way. Worst of all, and in the back of my mind when I wrote that tweet, something like a limpet mine. In this case, if the salvage efforts had ruptured the hull or been unsuccessful such that containers needed to be removed, then the recovery would have stretched to weeks or months and the already bar-taut shipping industry would have been in even more trouble.

The fact remains that shipping remains the best, cheapest and most environmentally friendly way to move everything around the world that we need to live and survive; and nothing is going to change this, probably ever.

It is therefore now beholden on the Egyptian authorities to examine and report what happened on the Ever Given’s bridge so that the lessons can be learned. More broadly, the shipping industry needs to review the policy of megaships-for-profit and the accompanying technology. Maritime companies need to take a hard look at the structures, processes and people they have in charge of communicating such incidents when they happen. At the highest political level, chokepoint resilience should be examined and wargamed. Finally, it’s beholden on all of us to improve our understanding of how the sea is our lifeblood so that this isn’t all forgotten in a couple of weeks. 

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