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13 December 2021

E is for Ever Given: A 250,000-tonne reminder of the world’s fragile supply chains

The enormous cargo ship Ever Given disrupted global trade by blocking the Suez Canal for six days.

By Will Dunn

On the afternoon of 12 December, the Ever Given’s crew breathed a sigh of relief as the gigantic container ship sailed into the Mediterranean Sea from the Suez Canal – the first time it has made the journey with a full load since it grounded, blocking the major trade route between Asia and Europe, on 23 March. At the time of writing it is heading for Gibraltar, where it will pass into the Atlantic and along Europe’s western seaboard to Rotterdam.

Ever Given blocked the Suez Canal for six days, having been blown into its eastern bank by a dust storm. The cost of shutting down the Suez, through which more than 12 per cent of global trade passes, is hard to pin down – but it’s not cheap. Lloyd’s List estimates that over £7bn in goods, oil and natural gas passes through the canal each day. The ships that couldn’t wait for the blockage to end faced a 3,700-mile detour around the southern tip of Africa, adding weeks to their journey. The fuel bill for a big container ship is tens of thousands of pounds per day. 

The problem was that Ever Given was designed to fill the canal. Giant container ships are called “Suezmax” or “Panamax”, meaning they are designed up to the largest possible size that will fit through the Suez or Panama lanes.

Almost 400 metres long, weighing more than a quarter of a million tonnes, Ever Given is a moving skyscraper; stood on end, it would tower over the Gherkin or the Shard. When an object of such size and mass goes its own way, there is very little – even its own 79,500-horsepower engine – that can persuade it otherwise.

Most people haven’t seen a ship of this size up close – their size keeps them far from shore, and commercial ports aren’t open to the public – so for everyone not professionally affected by the blockage, it was entertaining to see a blunder involving something so comically huge. A digger, which looked tiny beneath the monstrous hull, valiantly attempted to push the enormous boat off the bank and, while the Suez was blocked, the internet flooded with memes.

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The ship’s Japanese owners eventually settled with the Egyptian authorities for a reported $550m penalty, and Ever Given will doubtless make the journey with tugboats in attendance from now on.

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But a wider lesson can be learned from the incident.

In recent decades, accountants and management consultants have persuaded businesses and politicians that a complex world can be made to run efficiently. Ships can be made geographically huge; factories can receive materials at the very moment they need them; HGV drivers can be paid as little as the market will allow; hospitals can be designed never to have an empty bed. The Ever Given was a solid steel, 250,000-tonne reminder that this is a dangerous, expensive lie.

Find the other entries in the New Statesman A-Z of 2021 here.