How the Ever Given that broke global trade crashed
Captain Krishnan Kanthavel watched the sun rise over the Red Sea through a dusty haze on March 23, 2021. From his viewpoint, through winds of more than 40 mph, it was just possible to see outlines of the 19 other ships anchored in Suez Bay, waiting their turn to enter the narrow channel.
Kanthavel’s container vessel, largest in the queue, was scheduled to be the thirteenth travelling north through the canal. The Ever Given is 400 meters from bow to stern and nearly 60 meters across. It was loaded with about 17,600 brightly colored containers.
Soon after daybreak, a small craft approached, carrying the local pilots who’d guide the ship during its 12-hour journey between the seas.
Bloomberg reported that according to documents filed weeks later in an Egyptian court, there was a dispute between the two pilots and the Indian captain and officers, about whether the ship should enter the canal given the bad weather -- a debate that may have been hampered by the fact that English was neither side’s first language.
Like airplanes, 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 exactly what the pilots and crew said about the conditions.
From the bridge, Kanthavel could see about a half-mile ahead. 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 leaned into his radio and had a brief conversation in Arabic between bursts of static. Then he instructed the bridge crew to power forward.
A few miles into the transit, Ever Given began to veer alarmingly from port to starboard and back again. In response, according to evidence submitted in legal proceedings, the lead SCA pilot began barking instructions at the Indian helmsman. The pilot shouted to steer hard right, then hard left, the Bloomberg report said. The ships hull took so long to respond that by the time it began to move, he needed to correct course. When the second pilot objected, the two argued.
The lead pilot then gave a new order: “Full ahead.” 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.
Suddenly, it became clear the Ever Given was going to crash. According to a person familiar with the VDR audio, Captain Kanthavel reacted as anyone might in the same situation. “Shit!” he screamed.
No one could have anticipated what happened next. The vessel was wedged diagonally across the channel.
Below the waterline, the bow had been driven like a dagger deep into the rocks and coarse sand. Somehow, the back end had also run aground, lodging in the opposite bank and leaving the ship at a 45-degree angle to the shore. Nothing could pass.
It took about 24 hours for the SCA to release a statement, in which it said the Ever Given had lost control in bad weather. Evergreen, which declined to make any of its executives available for an interview, blamed a “suspected sudden strong wind”, while one local maritime agent cited a “blackout”.
The vessel was freed six days later on March 29, after round-the-clock efforts to move the massive vessel involved sucking sand from underneath its hull, as tugboats pushed and pulled the ship.
The Ever Given has been anchored in a lake between two stretches of the canal since it was dislodged.
The operator of a cargo ship on Thursday that it would take more time for the vessel to be released from detainment while a final agreement with Egyptian authorities was being concluded.
The Japanese owners and insurers of the ship were locked in a compensation dispute with the Suez Canal Authority (SCA), but announced on Wednesday that an agreement in principle had been reached. “It may take some further time for the agreement to be concluded, for the vessel to be released from arrest and prepared for onward transit,” ship operator Evergreen Line said in a statement.
Suez Canal Authority agreed to settle with the owners of the ship, having initially demanding $916 million in compensation, reputational damage and lost revenue before publicly lowering the request to $550 million.