COLUMN | The weakest link [Grey Power]

The containership MSC Napoli, which ended up beached on Dorset's Jurassic Coast following a storm in mid-January 2007 (Photo: Maritime and Coastguard Agency)

There is a poem I learned as a child about how a battle was lost because of the want of a horseshoe nail. I occasionally think about it when some stupendous plan collapses on account of some small, overlooked detail and it is surprising how often, in the great affairs of men, as in the life of ordinary people, that these disappointments occur.

This happens rather too often in what we like to describe as the “logistic chain” that binds together our globalised world. When it is working properly, without any glitches, it might be thought of as a wonder of the modern age, but all too often some problem arises that is magnified by a sort of cumulative process into a major blockage that works its way down the line and leaves almost none of the players unaffected.

Who, for instance, would have believed that a single ship, stuck in the wrong place, could have caused such chaos as was caused by the unfortunate Ever Given in the Suez Canal? We were given early warnings of this sort of vulnerability some years ago, as everyone was congratulating themselves on the global economy and our ability to get stuff made wherever on earth it was cheapest.

Who recalls that middle-sized and middle-aged boxship that was beached on the Dorset coast, which within a fortnight had caused car production lines in South Africa to grind to a halt? We obviously did not learn from that; witness the effect of the Suez blockage on the availability of automotive electronics in half the car plants of north Europe.

“The whole amazing mechanism that moves goods around the world was not supposed to be so vulnerable as recent months have shown.”

Most recently, we had the single Covid-infected worker in the third biggest container port in China, bringing this massive entrepot to a standstill and causing dozens of giant containerships to miss their slots, spend days at anchor, or divert elsewhere. This was a pretty small link, but with huge consequences when it broke. And you might think of the West Coast US ports: all struggling to work through massive backlogs of inbound ships, but with mountains of empties in the wrong place and the people who should be moving them in port and hinterland being off sick or quarantined. The offshore horizon darkened with giant ships waiting for berths is not the best advertisement for the transport sector upon which we all depend.

And yet the whole amazing mechanism that moves goods around the world, put in place over the years, was not supposed to be so vulnerable as recent months have shown. Everything about the modern liner trades speaks to us of gigantic scale and modernity, from the giant 24,000TEU ships to the great ranks of ship loaders on the quaysides and the vast capital expenditure in ground handling equipment, feeder ships, liner trains, barges, and the thousands upon thousands of trucks that bring the boxes to and from the terminals.

But back to that horseshoe nail in the poem, the resilience of this amazing logistic system has been shown somewhat lacking during the crisis caused by the pandemic, with weak links being ruthlessly exposed. The ships, amazingly, have been kept running, a tribute to those aboard going that extra mile, but the frail human beings that operate terminal control rooms, cranes and automated systems, gates and the business of getting the boxes off and on the dock have been shown vulnerable, when illness or quarantine has made them ineffective.

“Whether we might have learned from this experience remains to be seen.”

In both the US and Europe, there has been a critical shortage of truck drivers, which itself has worked its way down the system to leave virtually every other link in the chain in some way affected. In the UK alone, there is a shortage of some 60,000 heavy goods vehicle drivers, which is affecting the distribution of all forms of goods, with training of drivers and licensing arrangements at a standstill with the government agency staff “working from home” and unwilling to return after lockdown has eased. Thus, a small but critical link in that transport chain is hazarded, slowing down any form of rapid recovery.

The present crisis might also have illustrated serious weaknesses in resilience caused by a refusal to countenance any adequate leeway that might allow for critical staff being non-available. Here we can rightly blame the “bean-counters” for their cheese-paring attitude to cost-controls and unwillingness to provide for the human reserves and back-up needed to cope with the unexpected.

Whether we might have learned from this experience remains to be seen, identifying the vulnerabilities, reinforcing the “weakest link” and being prepared to invest in a better level of resilience. For sure, everyone is paying handsomely today for the price of shipping, the cost of delays, in the frustrated contracts and the slow recovery from one of the worst “Black Swan” events that the transport world has seen.

For the want of a nail…


Michael Grey

Maritime industry legend, and former long-term editor of Lloyds List, Michael Grey kicks off each month with topical issues affecting the maritime world at large.