Richard North, 28/03/2021  

One interesting thing about the Ever Given incident and like events is that, as they progress, similar examples are very often brought to light. The effect is to show that, what is initially seen as a "one-off" turns out to be foreshadowed by one or more previous examples.

In the case of the Ever Given, it turns out that there was a previous incident when a large vessel got stuck in the Suez Canal, resisting first attempts to free it.

This was the oil tanker Tropical Brilliance owned by the Russian partly state-owned Sovcomflot company, sailing under a Liberian flag. On Saturday 6 November 2004, the 154,972 tonne deadweight tanker suffered steering gear failure some 3 miles north east of Ismailia, in the northern section of the Canal and subsequently ran aground, blocking the waterway, the first time it had been closed since 1975.

The vessel had been loaded with 142,547 tonnes crude oil at Mina-Saud, in Kuwait and, when tugs were unable to pull it clear, another tanker was brought alongside and about 25,000 tonnes of oil were transferred. Thus lightened, on the third day after the grounding, tugs were able to free the Tropical Brilliance and reopen the Canal.

This is cited as a "carbon copy" of events over the past five days, although there are some important differences, not least the extended timescale.

One of the crucial differences, of course, is that the cargo could be more readily transferred than is the case with the Ever Given, but there are other important differences. Firstly, the ship was grounded north of the Bitter Lakes, where the subsoil comprises a softer, sandy clay, from which it would be easier to extract a trapped ship. Secondly, the Tropical Brilliance, built in 1992, seem to lack the bulbous bow of the Ever Given, which is currently impaled in the bank of the canal.

Nevertheless, the fact that the Tropical Brilliance had to be lightened is being seen as an important precedent, if not harbinger. It suggests that a similar process will have to be applied to the Ever Given, although the arrival of heavy tugs, expected today, may change the equation.

There may be even more grounds for optimism if one is to take at face value the claims of Suez Canal Authority (SCA) Chairman Osama Rabie. In a press conference yesterday, he announced that, after 9,000 tonnes of ballast water had been removed, workers had managed to clear its stern and rudder of the Ever Given.

"The ship's stern began to move towards Suez, and that was a positive sign until 11 pm (2100 GMT) at night, but the tide fell significantly and we stopped", he said, adding that water had started running underneath the ship. One source said there had been some movement at the bow.

On the other hand, though, we get Peter Berdowski, chief executive of Boskalis, the salvage firm hired to extract the Ever Given, offering the downbeat message that his company hoped to pull the vessel free within days using a combination of heavy tugboats, dredging and high tides.

Speaking on the Dutch current affairs show Nieuwsuur, cited in the Mail and elsewhere, he said that the bow "is really stuck in sandy clay", adding that the stern "has not been completely pushed into the clay and that is positive because you can use the rear end to pull it free".

The soil issue was amplified by Osama Rabie, who was cited by the Guardian as saying that rescuers had to resort to excavators again overnight to continue the dredging process. "The type of soil we're dealing with is very difficult to manage", he said, "as are the tides, which affect the vessel due to its size and its cargo load".

At last, days into the incident, we're beginning to see an acknowledgement of the very special conditions in the area, which may frustrate attempts to extricate the ship without lightening the load.

We are also getting some recognition of the danger posed to the ship, with the Observer relying on comfort quotes from Sal Mercogliano, a former merchant mariner, maritime historian, and associate professor at Campbell University in North Carolina.

In a statement of the bleedin' obvious, he tells us that, "the vessel is in a precarious position, it's hanging by its ends", going on to say that this position, exacerbated by lowering tides, can stress the body of the ship along its length, potentially causing cracks that can lead to further problems including the ship leaking fuel.

Mercogliano has "some reservations about the Egyptians just wantonly dredging alongside the vessel. Removing the dirt alongside the vessel sounds like a great idea. But what a salvage team would want to do is assess exactly what condition the vessel is in first".

He adds that, "You don’t want the ship to crack, you don't want it to, heaven forbid, break in half, because you do something wrong. If you start dredging without really doing a survey, you run the risk of the vessel doing something unexpected. And when I say unexpected, that's a nice way to say roll, crack or break".

We get another reference from JPMorgan's Marko Kolanovic, who wrote in a note to clients that "there are some risks of the ship breaking".

"In this scenario", Kolanovic wrote, "the canal would be blocked for an extended period of time, which could result in significant disruptions to global trade, skyrocketing shipping rates, further increase of energy commodities, and an uptick in global inflation".

Nothing much is being said in detail though about the risks attendant on unloading, where differential stresses, exacerbated by continual tidal movement, could be the cause of cracking and an eventual break-up of the ship.

Despite this, we are told that a crane is on its way to the site, and we also have what appears to be a definitive figure for the number of containers on board the ship, put by Reuters at 18,300 – a mixture of 20 and 40 boxes with weights of up to 30 tonnes (or more).

Here, there is another issue to resolve as there has been some controversy about shippers under-declaring container weights, with some carriers complaining that it is not uncommon for the actual total cargo weight aboard a ship to be 3-7 percent greater than the declared weight.

If there have been any shortcuts in the building of the vessel, compromising its strength, the addition of overweight boxes could throw out any stress calculations, leading to a dangerous situation if attempts are made to lighten the ship and safety margins are tight.

In a real world situation, there are often many imponderables which do not lend themselves to tidy calculations by computer modellers sitting in the comfort of distant offices. And where there are obvious commercial pressures to expedite the removal of this vessel, risks may have to be taken.

However, there is still a chance that today or in Monday we will see a successful extrication and the immediate crisis will be over – until the next time. And therein might lie another danger.

With the Tropical Brilliance incident, the CSCL Indian Ocean event cited earlier, and the February 2019 ferry incident involving the Ever Given, we will have four known incidents which signal a dangerous vulnerability in the supply chain on which we are so reliant.

The worst thing that could possible happen is that this incident is marked down as just another accident, and we revert to business as usual. The hackneyed phrase "lessons learned" must apply and measures must be taken to avoid being held to ransom by what is technically known as a single point of failure (SPOF).

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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