Tom Clyde: Suez traffic jam
The ship stuck in the Suez Canal has absolutely captivated me the last week. The huge container ship somehow managed to get sideways in the canal. One end was stuck in the sand on the bank, and the other was blocking the entire canal so that nothing could get past in either direction. I’ve been told that when a ship is in a canal like that, the captain steps aside and turns things over to a special pilot who is supposed to know every inch of the canal, where the sandbars are, and know every crocodile by name. But the pilot drove it into the ditch — or, this being a boat, he drove it out of the ditch.
Normally I get seasick just looking at a picture of a boat. I guess because the good ship “Ever Given” wasn’t moving, it didn’t bother me. I’ve been pouring over the pictures and videos. My favorite shows the scale of the thing. The ship is there, stuck on the sand. On shore are several huge excavators. They are the sort of equipment you would use at the Kennecott mine or digging a foundation for a Park City house. Sitting on the sand next to the ship, they look like sandbox toys.
Part of my fascination is that I spend a fair amount of time trying to unstick stuck things. Whether it is a tractor that found a soft spot in the field, or a ditch that is deeper than it looked, stuff gets stuck around here. When one piece of equipment is stuck, the odds of getting the rescue vehicle stuck are pretty high. Then you go get something else to rescue the rescue and so on. I think the record is five machines all chained together and stuck at the same time.
Our ground is so rocky that it takes some effort to get thoroughly mired. But when you find a soft spot, it will swallow you in. My uncle claimed there was a D-4 Cat bulldozer sunk completely out of sight in the east meadow. It takes a while to figure out the line of attack on how to pull something out, and I guess that’s why the stuck ship is so appealing. How do you pull it back into the water? Everybody’s got an idea. They didn’t have cranes there to unload it, and if they had taken off the containers they could reach from the shore, it would have unbalanced the whole thing and tipped it over. A friend suggested a big helicopter to lift them off. That sounded good, but there were apparently 20,000 of those big shipping containers on board. It would have taken a while. And then they would eventually have had to put them back on the boat, all of which would have further delayed traffic in the canal.
They went at it with dozens of tugboats, excavators, dredging machines that could suck the sand slurry out from under it, and anything else they could throw at it. As a land-lubber, I’ve never understood tides, but somehow the full moon factored in. I’m sure that there was more than one Scottish Blessing delivered, though not even maritime profanity could float it.
There was a great photo of a young Egyptian boy looking over the railing of his house at the stuck ship. You could tell from the look on his face that he was planning his strategy for getting the ship unstuck. Fifteen years from now, he will be a canal pilot.
They finally got it loose (a Scottish Blessing under a full moon is powerful), and planned to move it to a wider spot in the canal where they could inspect it to see if there was structural damage to the ship. It was trouble enough stuck on the sandbar, they don’t want it to sink.
The estimates are that it was impacting global commerce by at least $10 billion a day to have the Suez Canal jammed up like S.R. 248. It wasn’t just the grounded Ever Given. There were a couple of hundred ships lined up on either end of the canal waiting to get through. Some of them had livestock on board, with food and water for only the expected length of their cruise, not counting on the week-long pause. That will end badly. There are surely other containers full of perishable products — fruit that has now become some kind of slumgullion wine while stalled in the Egyptian sun.
When you look at that one ship with 20,000 of those steel containers on board, and multiply that by the 200 or so other ships of similar size, it’s almost certain that whatever you bought on Amazon last week isn’t going to get delivered on time. In a world of just-in-time parts inventory, and globalized commerce, something as simple as a wind gust that the canal pilot didn’t adjust to shut it all down. We humans really aren’t in charge of anything.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.
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