Widening Suez Canal May Make Sense: Genco Shipping CEO
Transiting the Suez Canal is sometimes nerve-racking. The channel saves a three-week detour around Africa, but it’s narrow, about 200 metres (656 feet) wide in parts, and just 24 metres deep. Modern ships, by contrast, are massive and getting bigger. The Ever Given is 400 metres from bow to stern and nearly 60 metres 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 metres 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 US$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.”
Suez pilots are employed by the Suez Canal Authority, which has operated the route since the Egyptian government took control of it in 1956. Often former naval officers, the pilots don’t physically steer transiting ships themselves. Their job is to give instructions to captains and helmsmen, communicate with the rest of the convoy and the SCA control tower, and ensure that the vessels get through safely, which they mostly do.
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.
Consider every item within 10 feet of you right now. Shoes, furniture, toys, pens, phones, computers—if you live in Europe or North America, there’s a very good chance they sailed through the Suez Canal. The canal is the essential link between East and West, a dichotomy that lodged in the popular imagination centuries ago in part because of the difficulty in crossing from one to the other. Before it existed, mariners had to brave pirates and violent storms by sailing around the Cape of Good Hope, while merchants traveling on land risked robbery or worse as they crossed the desert.
The idea of a direct route across the Suez isthmus was dismissed as a fantasy until the 19th century, when it was taken up by a cross-dressing French wine merchant named Barthélemy-Prosper Enfantin. A utopian socialist and early advocate of gender equality, Enfantin believed the East had a female essence, while the West was intrinsically male. Egypt, and specifically Suez, could be their “nuptial bed,” the site of a reconciliation between the world’s great cultures.
Enfantin’s ideas reached Ferdinand de Lesseps, a French diplomat serving in Cairo, who rallied to the cause. Eventually, Lesseps founded an entity called the Suez Canal Company and persuaded Egyptian ruler Sa’id Pasha and Emperor Napoleon III of France to support the project. The government of Egypt bought 44 per cent of the shares, with French retail investors acquiring the bulk of the rest. Tens of thousands of Egyptian peasants began digging out the channel by hand, later assisted by machines imported from Europe.
In 1869, the 120-mile miracle in the desert was complete. It soon became a vital commercial artery, particularly for European powers expanding their colonial empires in Asia. Egyptians saw few of the benefits. The canal’s construction proved financially ruinous for the country, and it was forced to sell its shares to the British government to satisfy creditors. Then, in 1882, Britain used a nationalist uprising as a pretext to send more than 30,000 troops into Egypt, turning it into a client state and seizing the canal. Suez had become an asset the European powers couldn’t afford to lose.
Anger at this act of imperial aggression festered, and in 1956 the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the waterway. An Anglo-French attempt to take it back with support from Israel was a humiliating failure, collapsing after President Dwight Eisenhower made it clear that the U.S. wouldn’t tolerate the recolonization of a chunk of the Middle East. From then on, the canal would remain in Egyptian hands. In 2015, President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi opened an US$8.5 billion expansion, increasing capacity and cutting transit times. Billboards in Cairo declared that it was “Egypt’s gift to the world.”
Today 19,000 vessels a year pass through the canal, loaded with more than a billion tons of goods. With tolls that can run as high as US$1 million for the largest ships, the SCA brings Egypt about US$5 billion annually. The country’s government is understandably proud of its central role in maritime trade. It’s also touchy about any suggestion that it’s not an ideal custodian for one of the world economy’s most critical assets.
Early on March 23, Captain Mohamed Elsayed Hassanin was just starting his shift in the control tower atop the SCA’s headquarters in Ismailia, about 50 miles north of the Ever Given’s position. As pilots radioed in to say that ship No. 13 in the northbound convoy had run aground, the results, captured by the CCTV cameras that line the waterway, were being displayed on a flickering monitor in front of Elsayed’s command post. No one in the control tower had ever seen anything like it: The vessel was wedged diagonally across the channel. When the camera zoomed in, Elsayed could see the forlorn figure of Kanthavel standing on the Ever Given’s bridge.
A former navy captain, Elsayed is a stern man who takes his job as chief pilot seriously. He’d been promoted to the position two years earlier, after almost 40 years of maritime experience and a decade at the SCA. He has smooth features, with deep lines around his eyes, and wears a pressed white uniform with black and gold epaulettes, spotless down to his white shoes.
Elsayed oversees four convoys daily, two from the south and two from the north. Part of his job is nautical choreography. More than half of the canal is too narrow for large ships to safely pass each other. That’s why vessels travel in convoys, waiting in one of the lakes or side channels for the group going the other way to pass.
It was clear, Elsayed said in an interview, that the Ever Given was stuck in one of the worst possible spots: a one-way section of the canal. He decided to take a look for himself. After a short car trip, he boarded a small boat and pulled up to the cargo ship. Even for someone accustomed to huge merchant vessels, the Ever Given’s scale was striking. It reminded Elsayed of a metal mountain, rising from the opalescent channel.
Below the waterline, the bulbous bow had been driven like a dagger deep into the rocks and coarse sand. Somehow, the back end had also run aground, lodging in the opposite bank and leaving the ship at a 45-degree angle to the shore. Nothing could pass. The force of the impact had also pushed the bow upward by six metres. Container ships aren’t designed to sit on an angle, and with the Ever Given’s weight distribution thrown off and only a few metres of water supporting the vessel’s middle section, Elsayed thought there was a real possibility it would break in half.
A couple of SCA tugboats were already at the scene, and divers were in the water checking for hull damage. Elsayed scaled a ladder to meet Kanthavel on the bridge. The captain was visibly shaken, and Elsayed tried to keep him calm. “Everything will be solved, inshallah,” he said.
He asked Kanthavel about the Ever Given’s hull, the weight of its cargo, and the amount of water in its ballast tanks. If they could lighten its load, the extra buoyancy might help lift it off the bank. Elsayed did some quick mental arithmetic. The ratio of tonnage to flotation was 201 tons for each centimetre. Getting the vessel one metre out of the water would require removing more than 20,000 tons of cargo—an enormous undertaking even if the SCA could find a crane tall enough to reach containers piled more than 50 metres above the surface.
The two tugs attached cables to the Ever Given and began trying to drag it free, their engines churning the water into spirals. The ship didn’t budge. Elsayed and his boss, SCA Chairman Osama Rabie, improvised a plan: They would run 12-hour shifts, alternating between excavators on shore removing the rocky soil around the bow and stern, and tugboats pulling with as much horsepower as possible. The diggers would gouge downward during low tide. The tugs would exploit the additional buoyancy provided by high tide to tow. To help the excavators, Elsayed summoned two SCA dredgers, floating barges with spinning metal teeth that could be lowered into the water to chew up the canal bed. They were due to arrive later that day.
First on the scene was a single yellow digger, sent by a contractor working nearby. The driver approached nervously and started scraping scoopfuls of rocky earth from around the bow. He was terrified, according to an interview he later gave with Insider, that the metal behemoth looming over him would topple or shift, crushing him. The comical size mismatch was captured by the SCA’s communications team, which had a photographer on hand to show the world the authority was doing all it could to get the canal open again. The image of the lonely excavator went viral, and for the first time in its history, Suez was both a vital commercial passage and a meme.
After giving their account of the accident to Elsayed, the two SCA pilots who’d been on the Ever Given’s bridge prepared to disembark. As they did so they continued to bicker, according to lawsuit evidence that’s disputed by the SCA. “These vessels are not supposed to enter,” the lead pilot said.
“Why did you let it enter?” his colleague responded.
Keith Svendsen was driving to work when his mobile phone rang. One of his colleagues from APM Terminals, a Netherlands-based operator of container ports, was on the line with news. Details were scant, but there was some kind of trouble in Suez. Staff at Maersk, APMT’s parent company, were rushing to find out more.
If shipping conglomerates like Evergreen Group keep ocean trade moving, APMT provides a link between land and sea, loading and unloading about 32,000 ships a year in Los Angeles, Mumbai, Gothenburg, and some 70 other locations, day and night, in an unceasing ballet of cranes and metal boxes. It also co-owns Tanjung Pelepas, the Malaysian port that was the Ever Given’s last stop before Suez.
As Svendsen, a plain-spoken Dane who serves as APMT’s chief operating officer, arrived at his office in The Hague, he wasn’t overly concerned. Mishaps in Suez weren’t uncommon and could usually be resolved within hours. In three decades as a seafarer and shipping executive, he’d dealt with more than a few close calls, some in that very waterway. They usually worked themselves out.
It was soon apparent to Svendsen, though, that the Ever Given’s accident was well out of the ordinary and would have serious repercussions. Like car manufacturing and supermarket distribution, modern cargo shipping is a just-in-time business, built around the expectation that goods will arrive precisely when needed. Before containers were widely adopted in the 1970s, it could take a week or more to empty a large ship and then refill it. Today, vessels carrying 10,000 containers or more might spend just hours in a given port, unloaded by automated cranes guided by sophisticated planning algorithms. It’s an efficient model, saving on storage and inventory, but a fragile one. It takes only a single problem in the supply chain for everything to seize up.
A prolonged closure of Suez risked a cascade of delays that would be felt in day-to-day commerce by millions of people, if not billions, for months. A vessel missing its scheduled arrival at APMT’s terminal in New Jersey wouldn’t just create a problem for the American companies waiting for its cargo. It would also mean a pileup of all the containers the ship was supposed to pick up for export. And, half a world away, factories in China or Malaysia counting on the same vessel to pick up their goods weeks later would need to find alternative options—which, given the disruption, might not exist.
APMT convened a crisis management team and started planning for various scenarios. What would happen to its ports if the canal was closed for 24 hours? Three days? Two weeks? Each increment of delay meant more vessels and cargo waiting to get through, unless they took a detour of thousands of nautical miles.
“Our job was to find out when we’d have a breaking point situation,” Svendsen said in an interview. Two weeks would be a disaster for world trade, the team concluded. Anything less than a week would be manageable, if challenging. Svendsen could only hope that someone would pull the Ever Given clear before then.
Soon after the grounding, an engineer on a Maersk ship directly behind the Ever Given in the northbound convoy took a striking photograph of the vessel, side-on in the channel against the apocalyptic backdrop of a sandstorm. “Looks like we might be here for a little bit,” she wrote, posting the image on Instagram.
It took about 24 hours for the SCA to release its first public statement, in which it said the Ever Given had lost control in bad weather. Evergreen, which declined to make any of its executives available for an interview, blamed a “suspected sudden strong wind,” while one local maritime agent cited a “blackout.” By the end of the day on March 24, 185 vessels were anchored nearby waiting to pass, carrying electronics, cement, water, millions of barrels of oil, and several thousand head of livestock. A shipping journal estimated that US$10 billion worth of marine traffic per day was piling up.
Help was on its way from Europe: A team from SMIT Salvage, part of the Dutch marine conglomerate Royal Boskalis Westminster NV, had been hired by the Ever Given’s owners in Japan. Salvors are like a 24/7 rescue service for the high seas. When a cruise liner starts to sink or an oil tanker is set alight, salvage crews rush to the scene to recover people, cargo, and equipment. It’s one of the world’s most adrenaline-soaked professions, and salvors employ all manner of Thunderbirds-style vehicles to get the job done, including helicopters and high-powered tugs with names like Sea Stallion and Nordic Giant. The business can be extremely lucrative. Under standard terms, crews receive a percentage of the value of whatever they rescue, potentially earning tens of millions of dollars. Fail, and they may get nothing.
After the SMIT team arrived on March 25, its members surveyed the Ever Given and then met Elsayed and his SCA colleagues on board. SMIT was there to advise, not take over, because Suez salvage operations fall under the SCA’s jurisdiction. But the Dutch experts had a plan. If towing didn’t work, they told Elsayed over the course of several meetings, it would be critical to lighten the ship. They’d already located a crane that was tall enough to reach the Ever Given’s deck and capable of removing five containers an hour, load by painstaking load, until the vessel was 10,000 tons lighter. The crane could be there the following week. They just needed to charter a vessel to sail it in.
“Where are you going to put the containers?” Elsayed asked. A SMIT executive said they’d be offloaded to a smaller boat, which would go to a lake a few miles up the canal, to be transferred by yet another crane to yet another boat. Elsayed thought that would take at least three months. “We don’t have time,” he said. SMIT argued it was prudent to have a backup option. Eventually everyone agreed that they should keep dredging and towing until the giant crane arrived. If there was no movement by then, they would start taking boxes off.
SMIT put out a call to its partners and contractors, seeking the most powerful tugs they could find. The available ones included a sizable Italian-owned boat, the Carlo Magno, that was already en route to Egypt from the Red Sea, a few days away. The Alp Guard, a Dutch behemoth with 280 tons of pulling power, was also days out.
Elsayed was now living on the Ever Given. He and Rabie, who was staying on a dredger, spent much of their time on the radio, trying to keep their crews’ spirits up. None of the SCA’s sailors, engineers, and drivers were getting much sleep in the army tents that had been erected alongside the canal. After an exhausting day spent attaching cables, squeezing extra turns of power out of engines, or operating excavators, they might discover that the Ever Given had shifted only a metre. “This is a good sign,” Elsayed would tell them. “It moved. Tomorrow it will be more.”
Privately, he was terrified someone would get hurt. Elsayed also had a son working on one of the tugs. During the tug shifts, as many as five of the SCA’s smaller craft would line up with their noses pushing against the Ever Given’s side, trying to lever out the bow, while others pulled using cables. If the ship was suddenly dislodged, the smaller boats would be scattered like toys, risking a fatal accident. Then there was the risk that the Ever Given’s bow could swing sideways and collide with the opposite bank, going straight from one grounding to another. Elsayed asked the ship’s crew to run four 100-metre ropes out to land, where they could be anchored to stop the bow from moving out too far if it suddenly came free. He hoped that would be enough.
The Alp Guard roared into view on Sunday, March 28, almost six days after the Ever Given got stuck. There was a supermoon that night, a full moon unusually close to Earth, and its gravity would pull the Red Sea’s tide to the highest it had been, or would be, for weeks. If the salvage crews were going to free the Ever Given without unloading it, this was the moment.
Then Elsayed proposed a novel idea: Instead of using the tugs only at high tide, they could also pull as the tide went out, hoping the current would help bring the Ever Given clear. It wasn’t quite established salvage wisdom, which favors high water over tidal movement, but having battled the current for days, Elsayed and his team thought it might work.
The waters peaked at midnight. In the early hours of March 29, crewmen ran a cable from the ship to the Alp Guard. The tug was so powerful that they needed to coil the cable around four metal bollards set in the Ever Given’s hull to prevent the anchor points from fracturing under the strain. Then the Alp Guard began to pull.
As dawn broke with the tide low, some of the tug captains realized they were no longer treading water. They were moving, very slowly. The back end of the Ever Given was drifting silently, inch by inch, away from the bank. The bow remained anchored in the sand, but the ship was only half stuck.
The second large tug, the Carlo Magno, arrived soon after and joined the Alp Guard in pulling from the rear. For hours, both tugs went flat out, whipping the water into white froth. But they were now working against the tide. They quit at lunchtime, having made no visible progress.
Then the SMIT team suggested the Ever Given take on 2,000 tons of ballast water in its stern, to lift its bow a few extra inches out of the silt. At about 2 p.m., Elsayed ordered all the tugs to try again. The tide had turned, becoming their ally. As he’d suspected, it was just enough.
Elsayed was on the Ever Given’s bridge with Captain Kanthavel when the bow began to move, slowly at first, then all at once. The chief pilot could hear his tug captains yelling over the radio. As the ship drew away from the bank, one of the ropes binding the bow to the shore snapped, making a sound like a rifle shot. Then another. Then another. But the final one held, just long enough to stop the Ever Given from swinging across the channel. Elsayed asked Kanthavel to power up the engines and get the ship on a steady course so it could safely pass the salvage vessels ahead.
At the sight of the Ever Given moving under its own steam, the tug crews cheered and sounded their horns. On the bridge, the Indian officers whooped and embraced the SMIT salvors. Rabie called President Sisi to give him the good news.
Elsayed allowed himself the briefest moment of celebration. “Al-Hamdulillah,” he murmured: All praise be to God. He posed reluctantly for some photographs, then got back to work. More than 400 ships were waiting to enter the canal.
The rest of the world swiftly lost interest in Suez once the Ever Given was freed. But for Elsayed and his pilots, the crisis was far from over. A significant proportion of international trade was riding on getting the backlogged vessels cleared. The SCA team worked day and night to move them through, transiting as many as 80 ships daily. Elsayed knew that having tired, overworked pilots on the job increased the risk of accidents, but felt he had little choice. A few days after the Ever Given was freed, an SCA boat sank and an employee died, illustrating the dangers of working in a marine chokepoint under severe strain.
Clearing the queue took six days. Afterward, Elsayed returned to his home in Alexandria to see his family, his first break in more than two weeks.
In The Hague, Svendsen, the APM Terminals executive, had been preparing for a huge wave of cargo, trying to boost capacity any way he could. The company had agreed with unions to extend working hours, deferred maintenance that would take cranes out of action, and cleared storage space to accommodate thousands of extra containers. Rushing cargo through would reduce APMT’s already slim margin for error. “It’s like a Tetris game where there’s no blank space,” Svendsen said.
The biggest problem emerged in Valencia, in southern Spain. The port’s storage areas were already mostly full, piled with Spanish goods awaiting shipment. As containers came in, the volume of boxes became unmanageable. For a time, APMT had to activate a last-resort option, telling customers it could take in outgoing wares only just before they were scheduled to be loaded onto a ship. It would require a month of 24/7 shifts to bring the Valencia terminal back toward normal.
None of this received much attention in the international press. On social media, people bemoaned the loss of a welcome distraction from Covid-19. #PutItBack trended on Twitter. For most, the Suez Canal went back to being a largely invisible fulcrum of global trade. Within the shipping industry, though, after the euphoria of the rescue operation faded, the conversation turned to blame. Who was at fault for the crash? And who would pay for the physical and economic damage?
Captain Kanthavel and his crew were still on board the Ever Given, waiting for permission from Egyptian authorities to leave. The ship was anchored in the Great Bitter Lake—a desert salt bed for most of its history, until the canal’s flow transformed it into a waiting area for marine traffic. Although Kanthavel hadn’t spoken publicly, he had good reason to be anxious. After a major maritime accident, captains can expect a forensic examination of their actions. (Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement, the company that provided the Ever Given’s crew, said in a statement about Kanthavel that it “maintains absolute confidence in our Master, who has acted with professionalism and diligence throughout this period.”)
On April 13, the SCA secured an Egyptian court order to “arrest,” or seize, the Ever Given. The agency said it was seeking almost US$1 billion from the ship’s owner, Shoei Kisen Kaisha, which declined to comment for this article. In legal filings, the SCA argued that it had led a “unique and unprecedented operation” to free the ship and should be paid for its efforts, placing them at US$272 million in expenses, a salvage bonus of US$300 million, and a further US$344 million in damages, including “moral losses.” Until the debt was cleared, the Ever Given, its cargo, and its crew wouldn’t be going anywhere.
On May 22, lawyers for the SCA and Shoei Kisen Kaisha gathered for a hearing in a crowded courtroom in Ismailia. A great deal was at stake, for a great number of parties. If the SCA’s nearly US$1 billion claim was ever paid, the liability would likely fall not to the Japanese company but to a collection of marine insurance conglomerates all over the world. Each would want a say in any settlement. There were also more than 17,000 cargo containers still stuck in the Great Bitter Lake. Nike and Lenovo had sent lawyers to Ismailia to monitor the proceedings.
That morning, the courthouse was abuzz with news that the Ever Given’s owner had brought in a prominent attorney from Alexandria, Ashraf El Swefy, to stand up to the SCA’s demands. The hearing got under way at 11 a.m. About a dozen lawyers jostled around a lectern in front of four judges, standing shoulder to shoulder as if waiting for a halftime pep talk. They took turns speaking, each following the same theatrical routine. First, an attorney would come up, state his name, and set out his client’s case, building to a crescendo that involved shouting and waving his hands. Then everyone would talk at once, until the next lawyer found his way to the lectern and the process restarted.
The SCA’s lawyer argued that the authority had saved the Ever Given almost singlehandedly. A billion dollars wasn’t so much to ask. “If it were not for the refloating operation, we could have witnessed a catastrophe,” he said in Arabic. The call to prayer drifted in through an open window as he spoke.
Soon it was El Swefy’s turn. He was much older than the rest, hunched and with slightly trembling hands. Although the other attorneys towered over him, he had obvious gravitas.
No one could doubt the heroism of the SCA, El Swefy said slowly. But his praise was the prelude to a surprise attack. He explained that Shoei Kisen Kaisha had tried and failed to negotiate a settlement with the agency. In light of the SCA’s resistance, he said, he had no choice but to submit recordings from the Ever Given’s voyage data recorder into evidence. What they revealed was “chaos,” he said. “Enter, no don’t enter, the wind is high, the wind isn’t high.” The pilots got into an argument and were “calling each other names,” in an exchange so heated one of them threatened to leave the ship, according to El Swefy. It was the first time anyone had publicly suggested the SCA’s actions might have contributed to the accident.
El Swefy professed, as a proud Egyptian, to be making this argument reluctantly. “I didn’t want to say this, and I’m ashamed to say it,” he said. “This waterway belongs to all of us.”
When he went outside afterward, reporters crowded him. He unhooked his face mask and patiently lit a cigarette with one hand, talking into a cellphone with the other. He declined to comment when approached by Bloomberg Businessweek. “I have a principle,” he said in English. “All my statements are made in front of the court.” Would the full transcript of the VDR audio be made public? “Not by me,” he replied.
In the end, the judges kicked the case to another court. The SCA has reduced its claim to about US$550 million, and as this story went to press, the Ever Given’s insurers announced they’d reached an “agreement in principle” to resolve the dispute, without disclosing its terms. Even if that deal is finalized, a protracted legal battle may still take place beyond Egypt. In London’s admiralty courts, where most big-money marine cases are decided, Shoei Kisen Kaisha has filed an application to limit its maximum liability from any lawsuits. The filing lists 16 entities that might seek damages, most of them the owners of other vessels stalled in Suez during the blockage. There could also be fights over financial responsibility among the owner, its insurers, and their reinsurers, who protect insurers against excess claims. The merry-go-round of litigation might drag on for years, to the delight of London’s legal industry and probably no one else.
Captain Kanthavel and his crew have now been floating in the Great Bitter Lake for about three months. According to the International Transport Workers’ Federation, a coalition of unions, they are still receiving their pay and are amply provisioned. Nine have been allowed to return to India. Seafarers’ groups are nonetheless anxious about their welfare; at one point, the Indian maritime union said it was concerned they could be “held to ransom,” becoming bargaining chips in negotiations that had nothing to do with them. The potential settlement is, therefore, excellent news for the crew. Once it’s complete, they and the vessel should be able to leave.
In a meeting with Businessweek at the SCA’s headquarters in May, Elsayed reflected on his role in this peculiar moment of nautical history. In the navy, he’d studied Operation Badr, an ingenious plan to move Egyptian forces across Suez in just six hours, allowing them to surprise Israeli troops and start the 1973 Yom Kippur War. He hadn’t quite matched that pace, but the SCA had managed to refloat the Ever Given in six days. “It’s the same,” he said, laughing.
Night had fallen by the time Elsayed offered to lead his visitors on a tour of the SCA control tower. Outside, the canal was a dark expanse, fringed by twinkling lights along the shore. It was empty: The next convoy wasn’t due to depart for a few more hours. Above the CCTV feeds, a digital map of the entire route was spread across 10 large monitors. Elsayed pointed to a yellow blob in the Great Bitter Lake, motionless on the screen, and said, “See the Ever Given?”
—With Ann Koh