Richard North, 30/03/2021  

In 1956, when Col. Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal, Britain felt its interests where so badly threatened that it conspired with France and Israel to go to war, launching an invasion of Egypt under the pretence of enforcing a cease fire. The repercussions were so severe that we lost a prime minister over the episode and were forced, humiliatingly, to withdraw our forces for no gain.

Some 65 years later, when the Suez Canal was blocked – potentially for a lengthy period - by the Ever Given, the response was a flood of jokey memes on Twitter, a complete absence of any UK political engagement and indifferent media reporting.

Coverage over the weekend culminated in the Sunday Times reporting on "a shipping container longer than the Empire State Building is tall", carrying 220,000 tonnes of cargo crashing into "the canal's thick concrete bank", while regaling us with the adventures of Ahmad the sailor man – with no spinach in sight.

The following day, the Guardian informed us that it had "emerged on Monday" that "the Ever Given was reportedly involved in another serious maritime incident in Germany in 2019", when the vessel crashed into a small ferry.

This detail we had published on Saturday, with the details entered on Wikipedia on 24 March and an animation of the collision posted on YouTube on 11 February 2019. In the nature of things, though, such information doesn't exist until the legacy media reports it.

As regards the incident, we've been lucky – in no small measure due to the skill of the Dutch salvage experts who took a creative approach to freeing the ship. Adopting two separate stages, they first swung the vessel's stern out into the channel, leaving the bow still embedded on the clay bank.

Then, ballasting the back of the ship, so that "the bottom hangs back a bit more and the nose rises a bit", that gave extra relief to the front. The two powerful sea tugs, coupled to the stern , were then able to deliver a straight pull, without imposing potentially dangerous lateral forces on the ship.

With the addition of the ship's own power, this proved enough to extricate the vessel's bow from its sticky clay bed, without the need for high pressure water cutting or lightening the load, faster than anticipated. Once clear, the ship has been able to sail under its own power to the Bitter Lakes for a technical inspection to assess the damage.

In an adult world, this escape from a situation which could have been far worse should provoke a period of open debate on the implications of our reliance on the Suez Canal, especially given Johnson's policy "tilt" towards Indo-China.

However, for the moment, on offer by way of post-event analysis is the Guardian whingeing that the "Stuck container ship" has "triggered people with fear of ships and sea wreckage and megalophobia, the fear of large objects". This seems to be official confirmation that we've moved into a parallel universe without anyone noticing.

On the other hand, it could be just another example of the feminisation of society, where soft, human interest topics predominate over hard issues, distorting (some would say "changing") news values and priorities.

One approaches such matters with trepidation, though, as even to raise the idea that males and females think differently, behave differently, have different interests and priorities and – heaven help us – write differently, is to bring down Holy Wrath and to have insults posted on the comments.

However, it wasn't male journalists who wrote of Spitfires as "fighter jets" in the Telegraph and the girlie who wrote the loving piece about the female contribution to the design of the Spitfire should hang her head in shame when her article was illustrated with a picture of a Hawker Hurricane.

Anyone who has brought up children will know that the sexes have different interests. We had two, a boy and a girl and in their early years my wife and I – more PC than we are now – sought to give them gender-neutral toys.

True to form, given a number of dolls, Emma would nurture them. Pete would arm them with whatever came to hand and turn them into agents of mass destruction. If I knew then what I know now, I would have bought Pete a "build your own nuke" set, on his second birthday.

Some might argue that diversity of interest doesn't really matter when it comes to the low trade of journalism, but interest guides observation and knowledge.

Bluntly, anyone who doesn't know the difference between an APC and an MICV – much less calls either a "tank" - isn't going to be much use as a defence correspondent. A Russia-watcher who doesn't appreciate the implications when its Army deploys BMD-3s as opposed to BMP-2s in its neighbour's territory won't really cut it as a foreign affairs analyst.

Thus, while the girlie on the Guardian prattles about "megalophobia", the distinctly male Gavin van Marle gets down to brass tacks on Loadstar, discussing the immediate implications of the Ever Given rescue.

Shippers and forwarders on either side of the canal, he writes, face weeks of potential supply chain disruption – with 357 vessels of all types waiting to transit Suez, and varying estimates vary as to how long the backlog of vessels could take to clear.

Although the average number of vessels transiting the canal is just over 50 a day, after the 2015 extension the capacity theoretically doubled. On that basis, van Marle writes, "it could take six days or more for the complete queue to pass, conditional to safety and other operational circumstances".

However, a substantial number of vessels have also been rerouted round the Cape of Good Hope, leaving the Maersk shipping line to warn that the ripple effects of the canal closure on global capacity and equipment are significant, triggering a series of further disruptions and backlogs in global shipping that could take weeks, possibly months, to unravel.

Pointing to a possible future without the Suez Canal for an extended period, data from SeaIntelligence Consulting, Asia-North Europe suggest that routing vessels via the Cape takes an extra 14.4 days to complete a round trip, while Asia-Mediterranean vessels take an extra 26.8 days.

This would soak up a "vast" amount of extra vessel capacity, equivalent to six percent of the globally available capacity – equal to 1.48m teu, the same as 74 ultra-large 20,000 teu container vessels.

Says SeaIntelligence chief executive Alan Murphy, "It is evident that such an amount of capacity absorption will have a global impact and lead to severe capacity shortages. It will impact all trade lanes, as carriers will seek to cascade vessels to locations where they find they have the greatest need".

"In the short term", he says, "it is not possible to build more vessels to solve the problem". The only viable option would be to speed up the vessels. This could partially alleviate the problem, but far from solve it. In this case, increasing speed from 17 to 20 knots would reduce the impact on the global fleet from 6 to 5.2 percent. Going full throttle at 22 knots would still only reduce the impact to 4.8 percent.

Fortunately, with the canal now clear – earlier than expected – this extra capacity will not be needed and, in time the perturbations arising from the Ever Given incident will settle – although they may take longer than some expect. With the combination of Covid-19 and Brexit, this could compound existing pressures and severely handicap UK port operations.

For that unknown future, however, there must be serious thought given to whether we can assume that the canal blockage is a rare event, quickly cleared. Not only are these mega-ships creating their own problems, we cannot rule out terrorism, whether rogue or state-supported, cutting off this fragile supply line.

Of course, we can always avoid discussion of the issue and its implications, retreating into prattle about megalophobia, leaving it to the grown-ups to make the decisions – or not.

And then, there are the broader issues of Brexit. While the Ever Given incident has, in some respects, been a welcome diversion from chronicling Johnson's slow-motion train wreck, other issues demand our attention and we must return to the fray.

Sufficient unto the day, though … I'll return to that claustrophobic world tomorrow.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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