On Monday, the 200,000-ton Ever Given was finally unstuck from the banks of the Suez Canal. For the past week, the container ship had been blocking one of the world's busiest waterways, causing oil prices to rise and shipping companies around the world to frantically reassess their operations. The incident was holding up almost $10 billion in maritime trade a day. With the crisis now over, logistical workers can bid farewell to one of the strangest incidents that they have dealt with since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Comically, almost as soon as news broke of the Ever Given's release, #putitback started trending on social media, showingthe 150-year-old Suez Canal to be a surprising stage for a global spectacle.
The Suez Canal is arguably the world's most important artificial waterway. It began as the ambition of a French diplomat and Egypt's ruling family in the 19th century. In the mid-20th century, the UK, France and Israel failed in an attempt to recapture it after the leader of Egypt's independence movement, Gamal Abdel Nasser, nationalised the passage. Nasser's victory made the canal a symbol of Egyptian independence, and a symbol of so many decolonisation movements to come. Now, the waterway enjoyed once again a moment as the world's most captivating story, during a year when breaking news has been mostly about illness, economic uncertainty, war and injustice. For a week, an entirely mundane piloting error – or a slightly too strong gust of wind, depending on what investigators conclude – created a measure of chaos normally reserved for more nefarious acts of geopolitics.
Delays and challenges are common in shipping. The vast majority of "crises" are the fodder of industry wonks, and a bore to everyone else. In the fog of tight timetables, international supply chains and thousands of private companies, what goes on in ports and international waters is important, but tedious.
But other crises in the shipping sector are universally distressing. The National has written, for example, about the hardship that mariners have faced during the Covid-19 pandemic, as a growing number of companies around the world are going bankrupt, which can, in extreme cases, lead to sailors being stranded at sea in legal limbo. In other cases, PPE and other medical supplies have gone undelivered, escalating international tensions and undermining the fight against the pandemic.
The plight of the Ever Given was a crisis wedged firmly in between. The public response included concern, fascination and even laughter, but the world was also reminded that the mechanics of something so important as the global economy can hinge on even the smallest details.
The beginning of this saga was unprecedented and captivating. The middle was a race against time. And the conclusion seemed definitive, after a combined effort from Egypt and international partners, as well as 15 tugboats and a lone digger. Even as the Ever Given takes to open water, however, the story is not over. There will be investigations and fierce legal battles that could drag on for months, if not years, as the shipping company and the Canal Authority wrangle to assign responsibility. The end lesson may simply be that accidents happen. But even that will teach the world something.