Six Days in Suez: The Inside Story of the Ship That Broke Global Trade

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Captain Krishnan Kanthavel watched the sun rise over the Red Sea through a dusty haze. Winds of more than 40 mph, whipping off the Egyptian desert, had turned the sky an anemic yellow. From his viewpoint on the bridge, it was just possible to see the dark outlines of the 19 other vessels anchored in Suez Bay, waiting for their turn to enter the narrow channel snaking inland toward the Mediterranean.

Kanthavel’s container vessel was scheduled to be the 13th ship traveling north through the Suez Canal on March 23, 2021. His was one of the largest in the queue. It was also one of the newest and most valuable, only a few years out of the shipyard. Ever Given, the name painted in block letters on its stern, stood out in crisp white against the forest-green hull. Soon after daybreak, a small craft approached, carrying the local pilots who’d guide the ship during its 12-hour journey between the seas.

Transiting the Suez Canal is sometimes nerve-racking. The channel saves a three-week detour around Africa, but it’s narrow, about 200 meters (656 feet) wide in parts, and just 24 meters deep. Modern ships, by contrast, are massive and getting bigger. The Ever Given is 400 meters from bow to stern and nearly 60 meters across—most of the width of a Manhattan city block, and almost as long as the Empire State Building is high. En route from Malaysia to the Netherlands, it was loaded with about 17,600 brightly colored containers. Its keel would be only a few meters from the canal bottom. That didn’t leave much room for error.

After climbing aboard, the two Egyptian pilots were led up to the bridge to meet the captain, officers, and helmsmen, all of them Indian, like the rest of the crew. According to documents filed weeks later in an Egyptian court, there was a dispute at some point about whether the ship should enter the canal at all, given the bad weather—a debate that may have been hampered by the fact that English was neither side’s first language. At least four nearby ports had already closed because of the storm, and a day earlier the captain of a natural gas carrier sailing from Qatar had decided it was too gusty to traverse Suez safely.

Like airplanes, modern ships carry voyage data recorders, or VDRs, black-box devices that capture conversations on the bridge. The full recording of what transpired on the Ever Given’s bridge hasn’t been released by the Egyptian government, so it isn’t clear exactly what the pilots and crew said about the conditions. But the commercial pressures on Captain Kanthavel, an experienced mariner from Tamil Nadu, in India’s far south, would have been enormous. His ship was carrying roughly $1 billion worth of cargo, including Ikea furniture, Nike sneakers, Lenovo laptops, and 100 containers of an unidentified flammable liquid.

Several other corporate entities also had an interest in getting the Ever Given’s containers speedily to Europe. Among them was its owner, Shoei Kisen Kaisha Ltd., a shipping concern controlled by a wealthy Japanese family, and Evergreen Group, a Taiwanese conglomerate that operated it under a long-term charter. The crew, meanwhile, worked for Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement, a German company that supplies sailors for commercial vessels and oversees their operations. Every day’s delay would add tens of thousands of dollars in costs, if not more.

Veteran captains say they often don’t have much choice about sailing into Suez in poor conditions. “Do it, or we’ll find someone else who will,” they’re sometimes told. But modern ships have radar and electronic sensors that technically allow the canal to be navigated even in zero visibility. And Kanthavel, whom a former colleague describes as a calm, confident officer, had ample experience navigating Suez.

From the bridge, Kanthavel could see about a half-mile ahead. Other vessels in the northbound convoy were on the move, gliding past the tall cranes at the canal’s mouth. The captain could still have refused to proceed, but with an all-clear from the agency that manages the waterway, and with everyone eager to get going, he carried on. The lead Egyptian pilot leaned into his radio and had a brief conversation in Arabic between bursts of static. Then he instructed the bridge crew to power forward. As the scattered settlements around the port gave way to bare desert, the Ever Given cruised past a large sign that read, “Welcome to Egypt.”

From the bridge, Kanthavel could see about a half-mile ahead. Other vessels in the northbound convoy were on the move, gliding past the tall cranes at the canal’s mouth. The captain could still have refused to proceed, but with an all-clear from the agency that manages the waterway, and with everyone eager to get going, he carried on. The lead Egyptian pilot leaned into his radio and had a brief conversation in Arabic between bursts of static. Then he instructed the bridge crew to power forward. As the scattered settlements around the port gave way to bare desert, the Ever Given cruised past a large sign that read, “Welcome to Egypt.”

For some visitors, though, encounters with the SCA can be a source of stress. Although the captain remains technically in charge, he or she surrenders a good deal of control to strangers in uniform, whose professionalism and competence vary. In addition to pilots, SCA electricians, mooring specialists, and health inspectors may also come on board. Each one requires paperwork, food, space, and supervision. They may also demand cartons of cigarettes, a problem that prompted a maritime anti-corruption group in 2015 to create a “Say No” campaign, urging shipping lines to refuse to hand any over. (The SCA has in the past denied such allegations).

Chris Gillard sailed the canal about once a month from 2008 through 2019 as an officer with his former employer, Danish shipping giant A.P. Moller-Maersk A/S. Between the pilots and the navigation challenges, he came to dread the crossing. “I’d rather have a colonoscopy than go through the Suez,” he said in an interview. The situation has improved in recent years, but the dynamic can still be fraught.

A few miles into the Ever Given’s transit, the ship began to veer alarmingly from port to starboard and back again. Its blocky shape may have been acting as a gigantic sail, buffeted by the wind. In response, according to evidence submitted in legal proceedings, the lead SCA pilot began barking instructions at the Indian helmsman. The pilot shouted to steer hard right, then hard left. The Ever Given’s vast hull took so long to respond that by the time it began to move, he needed to correct course again. When the second pilot objected, the two argued. They may have exchanged insults in Arabic. (The SCA hasn’t released the pilots’ names and denies they were at fault for what followed).

The lead pilot then gave a new order: “Full ahead.” That would take the Ever Given’s speed to 13 knots, or 15 mph, significantly faster than the canal’s recommended speed limit of about 8 knots. The second pilot tried to cancel the order, and more angry words were exchanged. Kanthavel intervened, and the lead pilot responded by threatening to leave the vessel, according to the court evidence.

The increase in power should have provided the Ever Given with more stability in the face of the gale, but it also brought a new factor into play. Bernoulli’s principle, named for an 18th century Swiss mathematician, states that a fluid’s pressure goes down when its speed goes up. The hundreds of thousands of tons of canal water the ship was displacing had to squeeze through the narrow gap between its hull and the nearest shore. As the water rushed through, the pressure would have decreased, sucking the Ever Given closer to the bank. The faster it went, the greater the pull. “Speeding up to a certain point is effective, then it becomes countereffective,” Gillard said. “You won’t be steering a straight line no matter what you do”.

Suddenly, it became clear the Ever Given was going to crash. Although no footage of the incident has been made public, the final few seconds would have unfolded with the horrible slowness of a collapsing building—a gigantic object surrendering to invisible forces. According to a person familiar with the VDR audio, Captain Kanthavel reacted as anyone might in the same situation. “Shit!” he screamed.