As of this writing, the container ship, Ever Given, of the Taiwanese Evergreen Line, is now lying to for inspection in the Great Bitter Lake, part of the Suez Canal. Authorities are trying to figure out whether it’s fit to sail and what to do with its cargo if it’s not. The 222,000-ton ship, as long as four football fields back to back (1,312 feet), is carrying about 20,000 containers.
The real question, of course, is what caused it to end up crossways in the Suez Canal, blocking it for six days, as the ship traveled from Tanjong Pelepas, Malaysia, to Rotterdam, Netherlands? Theoretically, such accidents should not occur. The bridges of modern ships like Ever Given are crammed with electronic devices designed to prevent them. For example, they have radars that can track close-in contacts smaller than a meter in size; they have satellite-aided collision warning systems; and they have depth finders to keep from running aground. One could also assume that a highly qualified captain was guiding the ship and the Suez Canal requires two of its own certified pilots to be onboard who have intimate knowledge of the canal.
While the preliminary word coming out of Egypt is that the accident was caused by the “wind,” and the insurance companies would certainly like to blame it on the weather or an “act of God,” having stood at least eight years of bridge watches on ocean-going vessels, including transiting Suez, I can think of many reasons why such events occur. Other than some mechanical failure, such as loss of steering, most of the reasons will be related to human error.
I’ll give you some of my ideas on this later.
At least no lives were lost in the Ever Given incident. This is often not the case. Commercial seafaring is considered to be the second-most dangerous occupation in the world, deep-sea fishing being the first. Each year, some 2,000 seafarers lose their lives through accidents, collisions, shipwreck, or storms. In fact, the Seafarers International Research Center estimated in 2008 that each year, one in 73 commercial mariners would die at sea.
After I joined the Navy to escape the three bares (barely any education, barely any money, barely any prospects), my first encounter with stormy weather was on a ship in the Mediterranean. Some people don’t realize it, but the Med can whip up some pretty violent storms. One night, in the middle of one, a friend of mine went out on the fantail to dump trash and was never seen again. All we found was his shoes. The official report to his family said suicide, but I didn’t believe it. I know for a fact that he walked around with his shoes untied, and I’m guessing that a big wave came across the deck and washed him right out of them.
It wasn’t long in my career before I heard that old adage, “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky in the morning, sailor’s warning.” I’m certainly not Nick the Weatherman, but that tale has been around so long that it might be true. For example, in Shakespeare’s poem “Venus and Adonis” (1593), he wrote “Like a red morn that ever yet betokened, Wreck to the seaman, tempest to the field, Sorrow to the shepherds, woe unto the birds, Gusts and foul flaws to herdsmen and herds.” Even earlier than that, in the Bible, Jesus says (Matthew 16:2-3), “When in evening, ye say it will be fair weather: for the sky is red. And in the morning, it will be foul weather today; for the sky is red and lowering.” As for me, I’m going with the Bard and the Son.
Some of you might remember the sinking of the SS El Faro near the Bahamas during 2017’s Hurricane Joaquin. All 33 crew members died in a catastrophe which has never really been understood. Hopefully, the ship’s voyage data recorder will some day be found, but I don’t need a water-logged black box to tell me what happened. Taking on water through the holds, the freighter’s engine room flooded; it then lost power, including all auxiliaries. Consequently, losing steering; the helmsman was unable to keep the bow into the teeth of the hurricane, and it was broached by a succession of huge waves.
Thinking of the individual crewmen, one would hope that “an angel whispered in their ear, held them close, and took away their fear in those last long moments.” Metaphorically, the ship might help in its own eventual discovery, as “el faro” in Spanish means beacon or lighthouse.
You can’t help but wonder what the ship’s master was thinking when he chose to sail directly into the eye of the storm, for you can guarantee that he was receiving the latest weather reports.
Thankfully, there are no hurricanes in the Atlantic this time of year, and the typhoon season in the western Pacific doesn’t begin until July, but there are many instances where storms at sea have changed the course of history. For example, the Japanese Kamikaze (Divine Wind) suicide planes that wreaked so much havoc on American ships off Okinawa in World War II were named after two storms that saved Japan from invasion by two fleets under command of the Mongol emperor, Kublai Khan, in 1274 and 1281. More recently, England was saved from invasion in 1588 when many ships of the Spanish Armada sank in storms in the North Atlantic off the coasts of Scotland and Ireland. More than 15,000 embarked soldiers and sailors lost their lives.
Only two kings have earned the sobriquet “Great,” and one of them was Cnut, a young Viking from Denmark who seized the throne in 1016. Monastic historians record that his troops carried into battle a magical flag embroidered with a raven that beat his wings to prophesy their triumph over the English king, Edmund Ironside. The same historians also remember him as “the king who failed to turn the tide.” Carried away with his own importance and power, he ordered his chair to be placed on the shore as the tide was coming in. Supposedly, he was disappointed when the sea did not obey his command to recede. (So much for his, and our, ability to control nature.)
Like the El Faro’s master who sailed directly into the maelstrom of Joaquin, we are often to blame for tragedies at sea and in our own lives. To illustrate, I never trusted the intra-island ferry boats in the Philippines. They were never on time, always loaded beyond capacity, and I could never figure out who was in charge. I always remained topside and tracked down where the life jackets were stored. I wasn’t surprised, then, back in 1987, to learn of the sinking of the ferry, Dona Paz, which sank within sight of land with the loss of at least 4,386 lives, the largest non-military loss of life at sea ever recorded. Actually, no one knows for sure how many were lost because the ship’s manifest was incorrect.
The dubious distinction of being the largest modern wartime loss of life at sea belongs to the German ship, Wilhelm Gustloff, which was sunk in the Baltic Sea in 1945 while evacuating German civilians and Nazi officials from Gdynia, Poland, as the Russian army advanced. The ship was torpedoed by a Russian submarine and at least 10,582 men, women and children died. Although the ship was torpedoed, the weather still played a part as the lifeboats were literally frozen to the deck of the ship. The submarine fired four torpedoes, each with a patriotic label: “For the Motherland,” “For Stalin,” “For Soviet People” and “For Leningrad.” Think Major Kong (Slim Pickens) riding the atomic bomb labeled “Hi There” out of his airplane’s bomb bay in the movie “Dr. Strangelove” (1964). The one labeled “For Stalin” failed to explode. Ironically, the captain of the submarine, while initially recognized and rewarded, later ended up in a Siberian gulag during one of Stalin’s political purges.
Joseph Conrad, a Polish professional sailor turned writer and the author of “Lord Jim,” “Heart of Darkness,” “Nostrum” and other nautical novels, said, “The sea has never been friendly to man. At most, it has been the accomplice of human restlessness.” One might add that man is not often friendly to those who write about the sea. For example, when the New York Times published the obituary of Herman Melville, the author of “Moby Dick” (1851), quite possibly the greatest sea novel ever written, they mistakenly referred to him as “Henry.”
Back to the Ever Given mishap — assuming that the weather was not an issue, here are some factors that I could almost guarantee played a role in the ship’s grounding:
• Fatigue: Because of severe personnel cutbacks (primarily due to automation), a shortage of big ships, globalization and the rapid growth of worldwide trade, today’s mariners are often pushed to the limits of their endurance.
• Loss of situational awareness: Being on the bridge of a ship at night is like being inside a video game with flashing strobe lights from the radar screens, constant chatter from radio circuits (often in foreign languages), the business of the ship to attend to, etc. It is very easy to lose focus, even in daylight.
• Overextended: Unlike Navy ships, which flood the bridge with watch standers, commercial ships sail with minimal manning and maximum automation. The personnel actually driving the ship have a lot of things to worry about. This is what we refer to in sociology as “role strain.” A person can have so many jobs that he or she ends up compromising their performance in each one. You put an overworked, tired, sleepy, sailor on the bridge, and it’s an invitation for bad things to happen. I’ve sat on the outside deck of the Riverwalk Mall in New Orleans, just to watch the ships sail up and down the Mississippi River, and it’s often hard to see a single person on the passing ships. It’s because they are running skeleton crews.
• Too much dependence on technology: The 268 ships of our modern Navy are the envy of all maritime nations primarily because of their advanced technology. Most ocean-going civilian ships also depend heavily on technology for efficiency and especially navigation. That technology, however, is only as good as the people who use it. What happens when they make mistakes? What happens when you are down range and can’t get a replacement part? In our world, have you ever noticed what happens when the power goes off? Schools shut down, office work slows, traffic lights stop working, people die from heat prostration. Imagine, then, what happens when a ship drops the load and loses power. Lesson learned: I was trained to depend first on my own technology: my Mark IV eyeballs.
• A breakdown in communications: One of my favorite movie lines is “What we have here is a failure to communicate,” directed at Paul Newman in the movie, “Cool Hand Luke” (1967). While this has become a cliché, it is no laughing matter when you fail to communicate with your boss and your fellow workers. Imagine the confusion a lack of communication would cause on the bridge, the “nerve center” of a ship.
I suppose it’s a leap of logic to compare a shipwreck with a personal problem, but it depends on your point of view. When I was a kid, I was standing watch on the bridge of a light cruiser when it came in too fast and knocked down about 30 yards of a wooden pier in Casablanca. I can still see the Royal Moroccan Drum and Bugle Corps, which was there to greet us, running for their lives as the pier collapsed behind them. From my lowly vantage point, the “suits” seemed to think it was funny, and our captain later made vice admiral.
Times have changed. In today’s zero-sum world, even scratching the paint on your ship will get you fired, and I’m guessing the master of the Even Given is polishing up his resume. The captain always goes down with the ship. Me? I just hope to break even.
Light a candle for me.
Benny Hornsby of Oak Grove is a retired U.S. Navy captain. Visit his website, bennyhornsby.com, or email him: firstname.lastname@example.org.