Did you hear the story about the ship that got stuck in the Suez Canal? Did you find the story super confusing because it seemed so improbable? Today’s episode is about the Ever Given, the ship that got stuck in the Suez Canal at the end of March. Our expert, Sal Mercogliano, talks us through what container ships are, why they’re so important, and what in the world happened to the Ever Given!
Sal Mercogliano is an Associate Professor of History and Chair of the History, Criminal Justice and Political Science Department at Campbell University. He is a former merchant mariner and has a BS in Marine Transportation from SUNY Maritime College, an MA in Maritime History and Nautical Archaeology from East Carolina University and a Ph.D. in Military and Naval History from the University of Alabama.
ABBY: Hey Maggie, how do you think ships get from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean?
MAGGIE: Do they sail around Africa?
ABBY: That’s what they used to do. But now since 1869, there’s been a quicker and easier way. It’s called the Suez Canal. This canal makes it way easier and cheaper for cargo to get from one side of the world to the other. Until about a month ago.
MAGGIE: What happened a month ago?
ABBY: Well, a really big ship got stuck in the Suez Canal, and it blocked the entire canal.
MAGGIE: Oh, boy, that sounds like a big problem.
ABBY: Yeah, a really big problem, in more ways than one.
MAGGIE: So today, I think we should investigate this ship, and how it got stuck, on
MAGGIE and ABBY: Big If True,
MAGGIE: Where I, Maggie,
ABBY: and I, Abby,
MAGGIE: explore the truth about big things.
ABBY: The ship we’re going to talk about today is called the Ever Given.
MAGGIE: That’s kind of a strange name.
ABBY: I agree, but I didn’t name it.
MAGGIE: Anyway, listeners, here’s our quiz question to test your knowledge.
ABBY: What country is the Ever Given flagged in?
MAGGIE: Hold up. What does “flagged in” mean?
ABBY: Excellent question. It means that the ship is registered as being sort of from a certain place. That doesn’t mean it has to be in that place for long periods of time, or it always has to go back to that port or anything like that. It just means that the government of whatever country it’s flagged in acknowledges its existence, and make sure it’s doing what it’s supposed to be doing. It’s kind of like a car registration.
MAGGIE: Ah, okay. Can you ask the quiz question again?
ABBY: Yep. What country is the ever given flagged in?
Maggie: A. Indonesia; B. Panama; C. Egypt, or D. South Korea.
ABBY: We’ll tell you the answer near the end of the show.
MAGGIE: Today our guest is someone who knows a lot about container ships like the Ever Given. In fact, he’s been on the news a lot recently, because everyone wants to hear his perspective.
SAL MERCOGLIANO: My name is Sal Mercogliano. I’m an associate professor of history at Campbell University in North Carolina. And prior to being a teacher, I was a merchant mariner; I sailed ships for a living.
MAGGIE: What is the Ever Given?
MERCOGLIANO: The Ever Given is a container ship. It’s one of the biggest container ships in the world. It’s 1300 feet long, 200 feet wide, and draws about 50 feet of water. And what she does is, she carries on board these boxes, which are called containers. So when you look at the trucks going up and down the highway with these big boxes behind them, that’s what she carries. And she can carry about 20,000 of them on board. And she’s one of a fleet of over 100 of these what’s called ultra large container ships, big huge container ships that sail across the world delivering containers and cargo everywhere.
MAGGIE: What do container ships carry?
MERCOGLIANO: They carry everything. They can carry everything from food, to building material, to clothes, to material for COVID, including protective equipment, everything that you can possibly imagine that anything you can put inside a box, you can put it inside a container ship. And some of the container ships, you can actually refrigerate the boxes. So you can put really cold stuff in there. So you can put food in there, medicine in there, some of the boxes are big and open, so you can put cars in them or trucks. So it really is whatever you can pack inside of a box, you can put on board a container ship.
MAGGIE: How big are container ships?
MERCOGLIANO: Ever Given is one of the biggest, but the biggest one right now is is a batch of ships from a company called HMM, which are 1300 feet long. They’re over 200 feet wide, and they can carry up to 24,000 boxes on board. And these ships are bigger than an aircraft carrier. They’re about the size of the Empire State Building or the Eiffel Tower. And they have a crew of only about 24 people on board.
MAGGIE: One of our listeners wanted to know, where does the crew go on these big ships?
MERCOGLIANO: There isn’t a lot of spaces on the ship for the crew to go, because you’re carrying mainly all these containers. The very top deck is the bridge, that’s where they navigate the ship from. That’s where the captain and the deck officers are. They’re up there, they’re looking over the stack and looking at the ocean. And they’re trying to get the vessel from point A to point B wherever they have to sail. Below them, that’s usually where they all live. So they all have their own individual cabins. So they get a nice little room with a bathroom and everything where they can stay, because they work long hours. So they need a place to go and relax. And then way down deep in the bottom of the ship is the engine room. And that’s what propels the vessel.
MAGGIE: How far do container ships go on one voyage?
MERCOGLIANO: Ever Given, it was sailing all the way from China. It had stopped in ports in China like Shanghai and Ningbo. It went to Taiwan. It went to Malaysia, and then it goes through the Suez Canal all the way up to Rotterdam in the Netherlands, Hamburg in Germany, and Felixstowe in Great Britain. So that’s about a, almost a 12,000 mile voyage. It goes and it does that same voyage over and over again. It kind of works on the loop. Once it goes in there and offloads containers and picks up new containers, and it’s always kind of moving, always dropping and loading containers.
MAGGIE: How much of the world’s commerce goes on container ships?
MERCOGLIANO: Well, about 70% of the world’s trade moves by vessels. There’s different types of vessels. So there’s container ships, for example, that move goods like we explained. There’s what’s called dry bulk vessels, and those move things like grain and iron, ore and minerals. And then there are tankers that move petroleum, oil, liquefied natural gas, and all them move about 70%. Containers probably move about anywhere in the range of about 20% of the world’s goods.
MAGGIE: So we know that these container ships are really big. And sometimes that causes problems. Can you tell us what happened to the Ever Given?
MERCOGLIANO: The Ever Given was going through the Suez Canal–and the Suez Canal is is very long canal, it’s about 120 miles long. While going through the canal, there’s something happened, we don’t know exactly sure what yet–could have been the wind, it could have been an engine problem. And they lost control of the vessel. And when you lose control of a big vessel, and you’re going fast, it’s hard to keep it under control. And what it did was it ran aground. And the problem with Ever Given was, it was so long, it’s actually longer than the canal. When it hit one side of the canal, the end of the vessel went sideways, kind of skidded out and went right across the canal. And so the vessel blocked the Suez Canal, and 12% of all the world’s trade goes through the Suez Canal. Over six days, the Ever Given basically blocked all the goods from moving. And so imagine the traffic jam, where you’re sitting in a car and you don’t know what’s going on. And you’ve got to wait, wait, wait, well, they waited for six days to get the Ever Given out of the way.
MAGGIE: Why is this such a big deal?
MERCOGLIANO: If you didn’t move Ever Given out of the way, then goods would not be able to flow between Asia and Europe. And a lot of the goods that were coming from Asia just doesn’t go to Europe, they also go on the ships to go across the Atlantic to the United States, to Canada to the Americas. And if you close the Suez Canal–so if you’re ordering something from shopping, it may not be there. If you’re building a car, for example, key parts, maybe in that ship, or other ships behind it, trying to get to you, now all of a sudden, you got to shut down your factory because you can’t build cars. And when you slow up one means of transporting goods, you slow up everything.
MAGGIE: Where did the ships behind Ever Given go?
MERCOGLIANO: Some of them had to stop very quickly so as not to run into Ever Given. Ever Given stopped very quickly. So the ships right behind them had to kind of very quickly stop. And then they were back-towed out of the canal. And they basically sat there; they had to wait. Because if you don’t go through the Suez Canal, you got to go around Africa. Africa is a big continent, and to sail around Africa’s 12,000 miles that would take you about two weeks to go around, if you sailed from the Suez Canal all the way back around. So the ships sat there and waited and they were kind of hoping that they would be able to move Ever Given.
MAGGIE: So what happened to the Ever Given?
MERCOGLIANO: What they did is they brought in this group of what they call salvage experts. And salvage experts know how to save ships, how to pull it off embankments. And they brought in this salvage team, and they brought in these big, huge, massive tugboats. And a tugboat is used to basically pull a bigger ship. And they were able to pull the Ever Given off the bank and sail it up to another place where it’s anchored right now, so that the Suez Canal could open back up. Now becomes the problem of who’s responsible. And the Egyptians are blaming the Ever Given and their crew. And they’re not letting the ship leave until they are given $1 billion to let her go, which is a lot of money. So it’s a bit of a fight over the Ever Given. There are usually several agencies that do reports, the insurance companies that insure the vessel in the cargo will do a report. The ship is flagged in Panama, so the Panamanian state will do a report on it. The ship is owned by a Taiwanese company, but with Japanese owners, they’ll probably have a report done. The issue here is going to be multiple reports and who blames who, and then it’s all going to go into legal cases as they file against the insurance companies. But the legal cases will have to be adjudicated in Great Britain and Japan where the insurance is. The problem is the Egyptians have the ship and they’re not gonna let the ship go. So they have a unique position in that they, you know, nine tenths of the law is possession. And as long as they have Ever Given, I think they they hold a pretty good hand.
MAGGIE: Hey, there’s the answer to our quiz question! Even though the Ever Given is owned by a Taiwanese company, and it ran aground in Egypt, tt’s flagged in Panama! Sal, thank you for telling us about the Ever Given. Oh, and by the way the Ever Given is still being held by the Egyptian government as of today.
ABBY: Hey, if you want to see just how many ships there are out in the world’s oceans, you should check out marinetraffic.com, where you can see where ships are in real time. You can see for yourself just how many ships are in the Suez Canal right at this very moment. Or you can follow the path of individual ships to see where they’re going. And if you want to know more about the Ever Given or the mess that it has caused, you should check out Sal’s YouTube channel where he’s done a bunch of videos that explain it all in much greater detail.
MAGGIE: And that’s it for this week. Join us next time for another episode of
MAGGIE and ABBY: Big If True.
Big If True is produced by me, Abby, and Maggie. Our guest this week was Sal Mercogliano. Our theme music is by Andrew Cote. If you learned something from this episode, tell a friend about it. And we’ll see you next time.