Worldwide attention focused on the maritime industry in late March, as the runaway-flag vessel Ever Given became wedged tight inside the Suez Canal, one of the world’s most important shipping waterways.
On March 23, the Ever Given was transiting the Suez Canal when it was caught in a sandstorm. The vessel lost control and ran aground, forcing the ships behind it to quickly stop to avoid a collision. Mariners aboard the vessel directly behind the Ever Given, the SIU-crewed Maersk Denver, reacted quickly to the situation. “The Denver crew really came through,” said Recertified Bosun James Walker.
“The Denver was right behind the Ever Given. The captain and crew were able to get the ship stopped and tied to the side of the canal.”
But there was almost a second collision on March 23, as Walker explained: “Our biggest threat wasn’t running into the Ever Given, it was being hit from behind by the Asia Ruby III. The ship came within 10 feet of our stern.” The Asia Ruby III, a Singapore- flagged bulk carrier, reportedly suffered a loss of electrical power and nearly collided with the Maersk Denver.
The Maersk Denver, along with the rest of the vessels in the canal at the time, was towed astern out of the canal, back to anchor and awaited the reopening of the canal. The crew was told that their vessel would be the first one into the canal upon reopening, and the Denver was the first U.S.-flag vessel to enter the canal northbound.
For the other vessels waiting to pass through the canal – including the SIU-crewed Maersk Seletar, Maersk Ohio and Sagamore – the incident was a story of patience. The crews of those ships could do nothing but wait, hoping that the Ever Given would be freed soon, as the shipping companies weighed their options. Some vessels were ordered to redirect, and sail around the southern tip of Africa to avoid waiting for passage through the canal, but most simply waited for good news.
When the Ever Given was freed from the canal on March 29, more than 360 vessels were at anchorage on either side of the waterway, an unprecedented backlog with an economic impact on trade estimated at greater than $9.5 billion. The backlog of waiting vessels was finally cleared on April 3, and investigations into the incident are still ongoing as of press time.
The Ever Given flies the flag of Panama and employs a crew from India. The ship is owned by a Japanese company and managed by one based in Singapore.
When the canal was cleared, International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) General Secretary Stephen Cotton stated, “We welcome news that the Ever Given has been freed. That’s fantastic for the sake of all the seafarers on this ship and others who have been waiting to transit the Suez Canal.”
The ITF’s union affiliates, including the SIU, represent more than a million seafarers and tugboat workers worldwide.
“We want to acknowledge the tireless efforts of the workers aboard the tug boat and towage vessels, and those performing the critical groundworks essential to resolving this situation,” said Cotton. “This operation has shown us how important tugboats are. There will be dozens of ships across the world that are right now beached, stuck or floating without engine power that are being assisted by tugboat and towage workers working around the clock. They should take pride in how their profession has helped resolve this situation in the world’s busiest waterway. I hope these workers get the recognition they deserve.”
He added, “We express our solidarity with the seafarers, both on the Ever Given, and on the cargo ships who have been queued on either side of it. Seafarers have been expected to keep the world moving during this pandemic by getting all of us the supplies, food, and medicines we need, and then they have had this major blockage to add to their worries.”
Cotton said that if ships were required to round the Cape of Good Hope, circumnavigating the African continent, the route would have added at least 26 days on to the typical cargo vessel’s journey, and more than $800,000 in fuel costs.
SIU Secretary-Treasurer David Heindel, chair of the ITF Seafarers’ Section, said a full investigation was needed to examine if crew fatigue or other issues had been a factor in the events surrounding the vessel’s stranding, as it had been in other maritime accidents.
“Let’s not rush to judgement until all the facts are laid bare,” he said. “An open and transparent investigation into the circumstances surrounding this event should be conducted, drawing on necessary input and expertise from the crew and their unions. Of course, the industry needs to learn any lessons that emerge from this incident. Too often, seafarers are unfairly blamed for incidents at sea. When proper investigations are conducted, we are able to stand back and see the systematic factors which drive bad outcomes.”
Heindel said the federation’s initial belief was that the ship ran aground due to high winds, but there has also been speculation that there may have been an engine failure. Such reports remained unconfirmed.
“My hope is that this highly publicized event at the world’s busiest waterway can give everyone an opportunity to see what tremendous sacrifice seafarers make on a daily basis. The crew change crisis is still happening,” he concluded.