Despite being stranded in the Suez, few will remember Ever Given

A man waves the Egyptian flag after the Panama-flagged ‘Ever Given’ container ship was dislodged from the banks of the Suez Canal. AFP
A man waves the Egyptian flag after the Panama-flagged ‘Ever Given’ container ship was dislodged from the banks of the Suez Canal. AFP

When news broke last week that the Ever Given container ship was stranded in the Suez Canal, this newspaper’s graphics department began to prepare locator maps showing where the vessel was stuck and size comparison charts to help readers understand the task at hand to free such a massive vessel from the shore.

Many of us find it hard to comprehend units of measurements, so the coda of graphic artists tends to fall into size comparisons, such as buses, buildings and sporting fields. A hectare isn’t a measure most of us can easily conjure, for instance, but we can when we learn that it is a little bigger than a football pitch or a little smaller than a rugby pitch. Even the morsel of information that the Ever Given loomed 73 metres over the shoreline didn’t help much, whereas describing it as akin to a midrise 15-storey building, somehow does.

So with the Ever Given stuck and the shipping lanes rapidly clogging up around it, infographics artist Roy Cooper started prepping graphics for this 21st century Suez crisis.

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At 400m or quarter of a mile long, the ship is 40m bigger than one of the largest class of cruise ships in the world and around 5.5 times longer than the Airbus A380, the world’s largest and most spacious passenger aircraft. He used both examples to compare to the Ever Given in our initial graphic documenting the crisis.

Cooper made a third choice for his chart, picking arguably the most famous ship of the 20th century: the RMS Titanic, which at 269 metres is dwarfed by both modern cruisers and container ships. He made the selection because, even 109 years since its sinking, Titanic remains such a popular culture lodestar and, he said, because it’s a “ship people can relate to”. Indeed, it is.

The comparison might have been seen as a challenging one, however, for those concerned with the Ever Given operation, because big ships are meant to be the near invisible drivers of the interconnected, just-in-time global economy, not potential symbols of hubris to rival the unsinkable Titanic.

It was also a reminder that too often we only get to know the names of ships through catastrophic events, such as the Costa Concordia, the cruise ship that ran aground nine years ago and sank in shallow waters off Italy’s Giglio island, killing 33 people. The salvage operation to refloat the vessel and move it to Genoa was eventually completed the following year. The court cases took longer. Other examples include the MV Hoegh Osaka, the car transporter that toppled over in the Solent strait, in the UK, in 2015, or the MV Wakashio, the bulk carrier that leaked tonnes of oil into clear waters off the coast of Mauritius only last summer.

A replica of the Titanic at the 2018 Boat Show in Abu Dhabi. The Titanic continues to capture people's imagination more than a hundred years after it capsized. Victor Besa / The National
A replica of the Titanic at the 2018 Boat Show in Abu Dhabi. The Titanic continues to capture people's imagination more than a hundred years after it capsized. Victor Besa / The National
The Costa Concordia lies on its side next to Giglio Island before being rolled off the seabed and onto underwater platforms. The cruise ship capsized and partially sank in 2012. Reuters
The Costa Concordia lies on its side next to Giglio Island before being rolled off the seabed and onto underwater platforms. The cruise ship capsized and partially sank in 2012. Reuters

The Ever Given’s story turned decisively on Monday morning, when information filtered through that the rescue and refloat operation had been successful, although a tense and contradictory few hours followed as high winds hampered the procedure and initially pushed the vessel across the canal back to where it had been stuck in the first place.

Eventually, however, the ship was freed and towed away for inspection. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi called the refloating effort one of “massive technical complexity” and said the world could “rest assured about the passage of goods through this pivotal shipping route".

Once the backlog of shipping begins to subside and the investigations as to how this happened have concluded, the Ever Given may well slip quietly back into working the seas, saved from eternal infamy by the tireless work of the rescue and salvage crews that amassed on the canal and its banks over the past few days. Supply chains didn’t snap beyond repair as was gloomily predicted by some and economies didn’t collapse as a result. Normal service is expected to resume in a week or two, possibly sooner.

We should be thankful for that. If the name Ever Given had remained at the top of the news cycle over the next few months, then it would almost certainly only mean that the world was in deep trouble and that a week-long crisis had become a much longer and more complex catastrophe. Of the many reasons that the Costa Concordia remains a powerful emblem of disaster even now is that, for a period, it served as a visible and physical symbol of Europe’s gathering economic problems in the early 2010s. The Ever Given has been spared a similar fate thanks to those rescue crews.

There is one final comparison to be made for the Ever Given, this time from April 2010.

Back then a major incident disrupted global air travel for more than a week and even left the singer Tom Jones stuck in Abu Dhabi for days after appearing in concert in the capital when flights to Europe were grounded.

In the end, the disruption caused by the eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano proved fleeting, Jones got home and normal air service resumed soon after.

One suspects the Suez episode was similarly fleeting, although news of a volcano erupting outside Reykjavik this month and disrupting some air traffic from the Icelandic capital’s international airport brought memories of 2010 flooding back.

Nick March is an assistant editor-in-chief at The National

Published: April 1, 2021 08:00 AM

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