Salvatore R. Mercogliano, Ph.D.
A year ago, MV Ever Given rammed its bow into Asia, ran its stern onto Africa, and her midships straddled the Suez Canal for six days. The world was transfixed on the vessel that launched a thousand memes and choked off twelve percent of the world’s trade.
This one ultra-large container vessel demonstrated to everyone the fragility of the global supply chain. For months before this, the nation had been experiencing issues, who can forget the great toilet and paper towel shortage of 2020. But on March 23, 2021, we all discovered that high winds and human decisions could lead to near disaster and the potential crippling of the world’s trade.
Ever Given’s misfortune set in motion an effort to take a ship disaster, which is usually presented by the news media in an incomplete light and turn into a teachable moment. Thanks to John Konrad and Mike Schuler at gCaptain, I was asked to comment on the incident to the BBC. Over the next six days, I did dozens of TV, radio, podcasts, newspaper and other reports on the incident for CNN, FoxNews, and MSNBC, to international shows in Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and Latvia (I am big in Latvia). Instead of merely recounting the same talking point, I hoped to put into context the role of global shipping.
My point in relating this to you is that I am not a major player in the global shipping industry. I am a former merchant mariner, turned maritime historian, who writes and comments about the maritime industry. But when Ever Given went aground, shipping companies hid behind their press releases and media relations, thereby leaving a void. While news reports were great, a few minutes on air did not allow me to fully address the topic of global shipping.
So, on March 24, 2021, myself and John Konrad filmed a half-hour video where we discussed Ever Given on a show, I called What’s Going on in the Suez? Nearly every day we provided updates. The day before this video, my YouTube channel had 3 views. The next day over 2,000 and when she was refloated, nearly 50,000. With my 15 minutes (or 6 days of fame) receding, I went back to my job and posted a video every few days updating the situation
Then the supply-chain crisis hit. The images of ships at anchor off Los Angeles and Long Beach raised the specter of shortages. In May 2021 I did a video that warned to do one’s Christmas shopping early. Then in September, a video went viral, with over 450,000 views entitled The Government Has a Plan to Clear the Ports…WE ARE DOOMED. A friend on an alumni Facebook page advised me against posting it since I was critical of the Biden Administration and its plan for 24/7 operations at the Port of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Fortunately, I did not listen.
On March 13, 2022, when MV Ever Forward went aground departing Baltimore, Maryland en route to Norfolk, Virginia, my channel, renamed What’s Going on With Shipping, eclipsed 35,000 subscribers and over 3.1 million views. Many people will look at the events unfolding with Ever Forward and draw different conclusions. Some are asking how this could happen again. Some have stated that this incident is nowhere near as important, including Lars Jensen the CEO of Vespucci Maritime, the oracle of all things containers.
Dismissing an event like Ever Forward fails to acknowledge several critical issues. One is while we have been expanding ports on the East and Gulf coasts to accommodate these new neo-Panamax vessels, we still lack the requisite tugs, salvage equipment, and dredges when an accident occurs. Second, the fact that ships as large as Ever Forward are calling at ports like Baltimore is an indication of a shift in cargo from the congested ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach through the Panama Canal. This has led to new delays in ports like Houston, Savannah, Charleston, Norfolk, and New York/New Jersey.
Third, the grounding of Ever Forward in many ways is an equal if not more dangerous scenario than Ever Given. Ever Given grounded her bow and stern and was able to be twisted off through a combination of high-power dredging, large salvage tugs, and a large tide. All of these are currently missing from the Ever Forward site. Additionally, the full grounding of the Ever Forward presents risks to the hull and a potential leak of fuel. While the US Coast Guard has stated there is no indication of this and the crew is sounding the tanks, the lack of a containment boom on site is a concern. Should a leak occur, the transportation of a boom from shore will take hours before it can be deployed.
Finally, the issue with both Ever Given and Ever Forward has to do with the cause of the accidents. While we are still investigating Ever Forward, we have yet to see any official report on Ever Given a year later. Was it her high speed (approximately 13 knots), the gusts of winds, mechanical issues, or human error by the pilot or master? With Ever Forward we have many of the same concerns and issues with no information being released by the US Coast Guard or National Transportation Safety Board.
As ships like Ever Given and Ever Forward get larger, we are not keeping up with the technology to monitor and safeguard these ships. Many ships go aground every year. Many are handled with little fanfare or notice, look at Mumbai Maersk in Germany. Yet as ships get larger and the supply chain requires greater speed, and as we reduce the size of crews and prolong their times aboard ships, accidents will increase along with their severity. Many ports lack vessel tracking systems to monitor passages. Nearly all ships rely on humans to steer vessels in confined waters when automated systems could provide backup to alert crews when they are deviating from their courses or track lines.
What I hear continually from my subscribers and commentators is how they were unaware of the maritime sector, and this is something that needs to be addressed beyond my little YouTube Channel. The Maritime Administration and the MCU – Maritime Colleges and Universities; although if Marvel discussed this it would help – need to be educating not just their students, but the public in the vital role of shipping. We are a nation suffering from sea blindness and outlets like What’s Going on With Shipping and gCaptain can provide some insight, but there needs to be more. Hopefully by this time next year, first there will be no Evergreen ship aground and second, there will be a greater understanding, appreciation, and recognition of the maritime sector to everyone.
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