COLUMN | Waking up to the fragility in the chain [Grey Power]

Containerships at the Port of Hamburg

It is interesting to see just how the importance of ships has suddenly imprinted itself on the public attention, after decades of oblivion, with their presence taken for granted, rather like the fact that people only notice their drains when they block up. The first intimations of this change came with the pandemic and ports at a standstill in countries like China, when people began to realise that the stuff they had cheerfully ordered wasn’t going to arrive anytime soon.

Then there was the wonderful reminder of the Ever Given mishap and the global attention suddenly focused upon the big containership bunging up the Suez Canal. People learned about the resultant chaos to the supply chains that could be caused by one single ship, large though it was. And since that exciting interval of almost a week, there have been regular reminders of the fragility of what had seemed to be an amazingly robust maritime supply chain, as one by one, its weakest links were tested and found wanting.

Ports – already bursting at the seams because of the arrival of giant ships, dumping huge numbers of boxes on their quays before the feeders, trains, barges, and trucks could manage to take the earlier consignments away – have been unable to cope with the sheer numbers of containers being shifted in the post-Covid rush. While the ships somehow managed to keep trading, workforces stricken by the effects of the pandemic have found it far harder to recover and the whole system has dramatically slowed, with queues of giant ships outside the ports. Delays have registered in weeks rather than hours or days in some of the busiest and worst-congested ports.

“In years past, those hundreds of foodstuff-laden ships would have departed their Ukrainian ports without anyone even noticing.”

People demand to know why the shelves are empty and, for the first time in years, begin to realise their dependence on sea transport, the delays merely underlining the fact that the goods they depend on don’t all arrive on aeroplanes. And if you lived on the coast of California or many other seashores, you just looked out to sea and saw this huge fleet of gigantic ships darkening the horizon, day by day.

A different kind of shipping has entered public consciousness after the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the realisation that the food crops produced in that beleaguered country weren’t going anywhere and that large tracts of the world were facing shortages or even starvation without the passage of those bulk carriers. In years past, those hundreds of foodstuff-laden ships would have departed their Ukrainian ports without anyone even noticing. Now, the eyes of the world are on the Black Sea convoys, with their voyages registering as crucial in the public eye. We can’t after all take ships for granted, it seems.

In these febrile times, scarcely a day passes without some reminders of ships and their essential nature. This week we were told about the impending shortage of LNG carriers, as the fragile nature of energy provision becomes apparent in so many advanced countries previously driven by “net zero” policies that have demonised fossil fuel. Coal shipments are surprisingly at a record high, and with the readjustment of trade after sanctions on Russia, ton-miles are set to keep more ships busier. Will it be a severe northern winter, because there will be a lot riding on uncertain meteorology?

“Once the systems are working properly again, the shipping world will retire behind its cloak of invisibility.”

Weather really matters and it looks as if people who live on the major European rivers who depend on sea-river ships and barge traffic will soon be realising their dependence on shipping, as the falling river levels after a prolonged drought bring trade to a near standstill. And as with all ships and trades, the alternatives available to move substantial tonnages are so severely limited.

Might this abrupt reminder of the value of marine transport make people more aware of their dependence on ships, the industry that operates them, and those who sail in them? It will probably be something of a “nine-day wonder” and once the systems are working properly again, the shipping world will retire behind its cloak of invisibility.

But there are downsides to consider; one being that there may be rather less enthusiasm for supply chains that stretch halfway around the world, and there may be significant moves to source goods that come from somewhere nearer.

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.