Blown Away on a Container Ship

Bill’s Building Blocks

Blown Away on a Container Ship - April 2021

A modern three-story building stands at the corner of Export and Calcutta streets a quarter mile from Marsh Street and across from the Port Newark Container Terminal.  This is The Seamen’s Church Institute.  The organization provides “a safe environment for relaxation, recreation, and spiritual refreshment” for seafarers, inland mariners, stevedores, truckers, and warehouse workers.  One of their programs, “Christmas at Sea”, provides knitted scarfs, hats, and ditty bags donated by thousands of volunteers including by my wife.

Container ships, such as the massive Ever Given carrying 18,300 containers stuck for a week blocking the Suez Canal, have very small crews of 18 to 25. The turnaround time in port for a container ship may only be a few hours which restricts shore leave.  Covid has kept crews stranded on-board beyond the calendar terms of their contracts. These men and women may be on-board for the better part of year between seeing their families. 

Peter S. Goodman and Stanley Reed, reporting for the NY Times, wrote about the economic challenges of this stuck container ship in “Grounded Colossus Reveals Harsh Truth About Globalization” 3/26/2021 and in “Ships Consider Rerouting to Bypass Suez Canal” 3/27/2021.  The following draws from these articles.  Europe receives oil and just-in-time automotive parts plus other commodities from China with the crossing between the Suez and Rotterdam running 11 days.  Ship fuel costs $30,000 per day.  Extending the trip south from Suez through unfamiliar waters around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, then sailing up the Atlantic to Rotterdam adds 26 days.  Hundreds more ships were waiting at each end of the canal.  Demurrage late fees run more than $20,000 per day.

The Ever Given was blown sideways to the canal by a fierce Egyptian sandstorm.  Both the bow and the stern rudder became wedged in the mud along the banks of the canal. The ship was too heavy to be moved by tugboats.  In addition, the ship has a bulbous bow design which means there is a protruding bulb in front below the waterline to reduce drag as the ship moves through the ocean. This feature is like a fat stick that has been driven into the bank of the canal. Offloading containers requires tall cranes and heavy lifting. Since container ships are loaded in the reverse order of their planned discharge, offloading runs the risk that reloading containers would put freight out of sequence.

Going south, Bab-el-Mandeb Straits are 16 miles wide versus hundreds of feet for Suez.  But pirates may be waiting in the Gulf of Aden.  In supply chain it helps to know geography. 

©2021 William T. Walker, CFPIM, CSCP-F, CLTD-F, CIRM has 42 years practitioner experience, authored Supply Chain Construction and Supply Chain Architecture, and teaches Supply Chain Engineering at NYU Tandon plus Demand Planning at Rutgers Business School. He is a 40+year ASCM member and APICS E&R Foundation past president. email: [email protected]