Opinion: Stormy Weather

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. 

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