A stuck cargo ship caused an epic traffic jam in the Suez Canal

The Ever Given ship was stuck in the canal for six days, but effects will be felt for months

Today's expression: Back up (accumulation)
Explore more: Lesson #354
April 12, 2021:

In March, a massive cargo ship called the Ever Given got stuck in the Suez Canal for six days. The canal is one of the most important routes in global trade, and just six days without it revealed just how fragile the global supply chain is. The effects will likely be felt worldwide for months. Plus, learn “back up.”

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An epic traffic jam in the Suez Canal

Lesson summary

Hi there, I’m Jeff, JR is the producer of this fine program, and this is Plain English lesson number 354. You can find the full lesson online at PlainEnglish.com/354.

On today’s lesson: The Suez Canal is a major chokepoint in global trade, and a massive cargo ship got stuck, blocking traffic in both directions for six days. We’ll explore what happened, and who suffered, as a result of this epic traffic jam. The expression is “back up” and if you remember it from a previous lesson—don’t worry, this is a new way to use “back up.” And we have a quote of the week. So let’s get started.

Container ship snarled traffic for days in Egypt

A massive oceangoing container ship got stuck in the Suez Canal, snarling global trade for a week.

The Suez Canal is an essential shipping route that connects Europe and Asia. Container ships from China, Malaysia, and other Asian countries travel up the Red Sea on the east coast of Africa, through Egypt’s Suez Canal, and into the Mediterranean Sea, where they continue on to Europe’s southern or northern ports.

But all that depends on smooth sailing through the 151-year old canal. On a typical day, over 100 massive cargo ships pass through the 120-mile canal. The ships carry oil, gas, consumer goods, raw materials, and even livestock. But all that came to a halt at 7:40 in the morning on March 23.

The Ever Given, a super-sized container ship registered in Taiwan, was heading from Malaysia to Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, when it got stuck in the canal. Its bow rammed the east side of the canal, where it got wedged into the canal’s wall, and couldn’t move. Aerial photos showed the massive ship extending diagonally across the canal, blocking the way for any other traffic.

It’s still not clear exactly what happened, but preliminary reports suggest that a sandstorm and a burst of strong wind destabilized the ship and cause it to veer off course.

Egypt began a race against the clock to free the ship. Every hour that the canal is blocked represents lost money for shippers that pay hefty fees to pass through the waterway. Immediately, oceangoing traffic began to back up . Several ships had already entered the canal zone and couldn’t turn around. Other ships started to idle near the entrance to the canal zone. The effects on global trade were felt immediately: a disruption in the flow of oil and gas would impact energy markets around the world.

Shippers sending medical devices and other time-sensitive goods began to look into air freight and rail as an expensive alternative. As engineers worked to dredge the canal near the stuck ship, it appeared the backup could last weeks. In the nightmare scenario, the ship’s load would have to be lightened, with its containers lifted off the top by helicopter. The ship’s capacity is 20,000 standards shipping containers.

Fearing long delays, some shipping companies decided to bypass the canal entirely, sending their ships around the Cape of Good Hope. Sending a ship around the southernmost point of Africa, and all the way up Africa’s western coast, adds about half a million dollars in costs and weeks to a typical journey from Asia to Europe. Dozens of ships were sent this route.

Not every shipper had that option. Some of the ships waiting to get through the canal were carrying livestock. There would be no way to reroute livestock because there wouldn’t be enough animal feed to keep the livestock alive during that long journey. At the worst point in the delay, over 360 container ships were idling at the northern and southern ends of the canal, waiting, and worrying.

But extensive dredging—and a little bit of help from Mother Nature—freed the ship at dawn on Monday, March 29, six days after the ship first got stuck. Dredging is the process of digging out sand from the bed of the sea. At the same time, engineers were working on breaking apart the canal wall where the ship was wedged in. In a stroke of good fortune, however, high tides associated with a full moon helped raise the sea level and dislodge the ship.

Once it was freed, a fleet of tugboats guided the Ever Given northbound to safety, and traffic once again began to flow through the canal. Egypt said it would allow more than the average capacity to flow through the canal while the backlog dissipates. Ships carrying livestock were given priority as animal feed was running low. Experts said it would take several days to clear the backlog of ships at anchor waiting to enter the canal.

The effects will be felt for months, well after the backlog clears. Global trade in goods isa delicate balance , which has been upset by the shipping delays. Europe’s biggest ports are expected to be backed up for several days, as several ships at once approach to be unloaded and re-loaded. The overland logistics will also be stretched, as trucks and trains will have to handle the surge in arriving cargo.

Since ships were not following their regular schedules, the containers are not where they were expected. The ships that were re-routed will be at sea for weeks longer than anticipated, tying up container capacity. Cargo ready to ship won’t be able to be loaded into shipping containers, because the containers are delayed. Some retail goods won’t reach store shelves on time, potentially leading to shortages in stores in Europe. Some ships were carrying inputs to European factories, so the final goods produced by those factories will be delayed.

A delicate balance

What a mess. This just goes to show how delicate the whole world economic system is. We have a few of these chokepoints—the Suez Canal, the Panama Canal—and if just one is blocked for any length of time, it can really mess things up. I had no idea, by the way, that they shipped livestock by ocean vessel. I never really thought of it, but I had no idea you could ship cattle and sheep via an oceanliner. Wow.

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Expression: Back up (accumulation)