Observations of an Expat: The High Seas

About the only time the world’s land-based public thinks about seaborne traffic and the globalised trade it underpins is when they look above the parapets of their sand castles and spy a ship on the distant horizon.

Or, when something happens, such as a war or a vital sea artery is blocked and prices creep up and super market shelves start to empty.

The latter is happening.

One of the world’s largest container ships – the Taiwanese-registered Evergreen – is blocking the Suez Canal. It is expected to take weeks to refloat it. Twelve percent of the world’s trade passes through the shortcut waterway linking Europe and Asia. So far 160 ships are parked at either end waiting for the salvage crews to free Evergreen. Every day that the ship is stuck it costs world trade $9.6 billion.

The blockage is already impacting oil prices which have so far jumped from $50 to $65 a barrel. But oil tankers are not the only ships affected. There also container ships and bulk carriers. They carry wheat, rice, coffee, textiles, steel, car parts, manufacturing components, computer parts, fruit, vegetables…

The owners of Evergreen refuse to divulge the contents of the ship’s cargo, but it is so big that if it is carrying bananas its containers would have enough to feed all of Europe for more than a year. All those hypothetical bananas would be spoilt and any other fresh produce on the ships idling in the Red and Mediterranean Seas.

The blockage will also hit production schedules right across the economy. Manufacturers, shopkeepers, processing plants, lorry drivers etcetera, have limited storage space. They rely on ships arriving on schedule to keep to their own tight programme. If they are late then lorry drivers and cargo trains have no goods to transport from the port to the shops or manufacturers. If a car assembly plant does not receive steel sheets from India or brake parts from China then it shuts down and the workers are laid off. No coffee from Kenya or tea from Sri Lanka means that those products simply disappear from supermarket shelves.

The ships can divert to sail the extra 3,500 miles around South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope. But this adds 12 days to the journey and – although shipping is the cheapest form of transport – it pushes up the cost to the ship owners which will inevitably be passed along to the consumers. And the extra 12 days fails to eliminate the problem of production bottlenecks.  It is, however, better than the several weeks which salvage experts are pessimistically projecting as a time scale for moving Evergreen which is why some ships are switching to the Cape route.

The Suez Canal is not the world’s only link waterway. Six percent of the world’s trade passes through the Panama Canal which joins the East and West coasts of America, the East coast to the Pacific Rim countries and the West coast to Europe and Africa.

There is also the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal which was completed in 1992 and connects Europe’s Rhine and Danube rivers and provides a continuous waterway from the North Sea to the Black Sea and then to the Eastern end of the Mediterranean. The ships are not as big as their ocean-going counterparts, but the route still manages to carry about seven billion tonnes of goods per day.

Canals are the most obvious watery chokepoints for maritime trade but not the only ones. The biggest is the English Channel through which 20 percent of the world’s trade passes. There is also the Danish Straights, The Straits of Hormuz, the Straits of Gibraltar, the Bosporus, the Cape of Good Hope, the Strait of Malacca and the South China and East China Seas. If climate change keeps melting the Arctic ice cap there will also be sea passages on the northern edge of Russia, Scandinavia, Canada and the US, the opening of which would draw traffic away from the Suez and Panama canals.

Eighty percent of the world’s trade travels by ship compared to ten percent by rail, nine percent by road and a meagre one percent by air. Traffic clogging Lorries are a constant part of our lives. Commuters use trains every day and planes are our chief passport to foreign parts.  For most of the world’s land-based public ships are out of sight and, thus, out of mind. The Suez blockage is very likely to change that – at least for a while.

* American expat journalist Tom Arms is LDV's foreign affairs editor, author of the forthcoming book “America: Made in Britain” and Campaigns Chair for Wandsworth Lib Dems

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5 Comments

  • Very good read. Clear, easy to follow and understand. Thank you.

  • Laurence Cox 27th Mar '21 - 11:58am

    One small correction: the name of the ship is the Ever Given; Evergreen Maritime Corporation is the company that operates it.

    The point that Tom makes about the Northern Sea Route is very important; in 2020 this was open for 88 days during the Summer and Autumn (minimum ice cover is around the middle of September). Even if all the countries of the world meet their Paris climate change targets and we limit global warming to 2° C, it could be open all year round by 2040.

  • John Marriott 27th Mar '21 - 3:57pm

    Mention of alternative routes around the world bring us back to the North West Passage, where the Franklin Expedition came to grief in the 1840s. Had Sir John and his men set out today it is quite likely that they would have succeeded in finding an alternative route to China and the Far East.

    Mind you, it’s not the first time that the Suez has been blocked and, given the size of container ships, it may not be the last time. At £300k for each journey, it could prove quite a real financial loss for the Egyptian government.

  • Joseph Bourke 27th Mar '21 - 5:06pm

    The Northwest passage, the Suez canal and the Straits of Gibraltar, are indeed part of maritime British history. Laurence notes the Northern Sea Route was open for 88 days in 2020. I understand that some cruise ships plan on voyaging through the Northwest passage in the summer months, presumably through Lancaster Sound in the direction of Baffin bay. Let’s hope they have a better time of it than Sir John Franklin and the ill-fated crews of HMS Terror and HMS Erebus.
    It might not be such a bad idea to at least offer the assistance of the Royal Navy to Egypt (if they want it) in moving the stranded ship as a mea culpa for invading the country in 1956.

  • Sincere and abject apologies for wrong ship’s name. Result of assumption that the name on the side of the ship was the name of the ship. Rookie journalistic mistake. Never, eve assume anything.

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