COLUMN | Will the Ever Given case lead to major changes? [Tug Times]

Satellite photograph of the 400-metre containership Ever Given after it ran aground and became lodged in the Suez Canal on March 23, 2021 (Photo: Maxar Technologies)

Once upon a time, Riviera Maritime Media organised a webinar to discuss, among other things, the fallout from the Ever Given case and its possible implications for the salvage industry. The panelists were George Tsavliris, Richard Janssen of Smit, and John Noble of Constellation Marine Services, so there was no lack of expertise and experience on the panel. I was not able to attend, so I base my comments on reports of the event.

One conclusion drawn by the panel, and supported by 90 per cent of the delegates, was that salvage stations should be set up around key waterways. Mr Tsavliris pointed out that there used to be salvage tugs stationed near likely trouble spots, but this is no longer the case because, apart from anything else, “salvage needs to be paid for”. He also noted that ship and cargo values are rising steadily, and claimed a modern container ship could be carrying goods worth US$2 billion.

To prevent such losses, it would make sense to invest in decent salvage equipment and the training of skilled salvors. The majority of delegates also agreed there is insufficient investment in salvage equipment and training.

Mr Tsavliris is absolutely correct, but the question that has to be asked is where will the money come from? Having tugs on salvage station was a good idea when there was a reasonable chance they would make a profit, but the statistics show the number of major incidents has declined over the years. Add to this the fact that, if towage is required, there is generally a powerful offshore supply vessel not too far away, and it is easy to see why there are no longer salvage tugs loitering near every congested waterway.

“Is it reasonable to place all the responsibility on the master for operations he probably would not understand, or expect him to recognise a potential disaster and intervene in five seconds?”

It is also true that even a fleet of salvage tugs at the ends of the Suez Canal, or spaced regularly along its course, would not have prevented Ever Given veering off course and jamming herself across the canal. As Mr Janssen noted, the Suez Canal Authority had dredgers and powerful tugs readily available, which helped speed up the salvage but could not prevent the grounding in the first place. He proposed an integrated approach by all interested parties to determine whether large container ships can be manoeuvred in restricted waterways in order to mitigate potential problems.

And that, I believe, is the heart of the problem. I have tried to imagine how a powerful tug could be used effectively to prevent the next canal blockage, and I cannot come up with a foolproof solution that would guarantee a reasonable chance of success without slowing operations significantly.

Years ago there were a series of trials of escort tugs to answer questions about directional stability, so it would be possible to conduct similar trials to seek an effective means of preventing groundings and blockages of major waterways, but who will donate the large container ships and tugs for lengthy trials, and which major waterway will permit itself to be used (and probably blocked) for such trials? I suppose some form of trial could be carried out in testing tanks or aboard manned models, but would the results be trusted without full-scale verification?

And even if we find a way to bring big ships safely through restricted waterways, we still have to sort out the vexed topic of who would be responsible for the passage. John Noble rightly pointed out that “the master-pilot authority relationship in the Suez Canal needs to be resolved”, and he reminded delegates that at the moment the master is always in command and can override a pilot. But if a complex escort scenario could be devised, is it reasonable to place all the responsibility on the master for operations he probably would not understand, or expect him to recognise a potential disaster and intervene in the five seconds between the disaster developing and his ship becoming wedged across the canal? I tend to agree with Mr. Noble that the “Suez Canal Authority would have to take control and then take responsibility”.

Delegates were not so sure. They were asked, in light of the Ever Given incident, who should have ultimate responsibility for a Suez Canal transit? A worrying 56 per cent said it should be the master while 26 per cent thought it should be the Suez Canal Authority and 18 per cent said the pilot. I am not sure where the 18 per cent think they will find pilots who are willing to accept a job in the canal if they are expected to carry the can for every incident, or face a claim for US$900 million every time they cause a blockage. Perhaps we should be thankful nobody thought it should be the tugs who are held accountable.

“The canal authority probably lost very little since most of the ships that were delayed simply waited at either end of the canal until it opened again.”

It does not matter what the delegates thought, of course, but the three panelists raised very important questions that really deserve to be answered. Unfortunately, finding those answers will cost an awful lot of money, so who should pay?

I have a cunning plan.

At the time of writing, the Suez Canal Authority has detained Ever Given and are demanding an unbelievable sum of money for her release. Their justification for this is the amount they claim to have lost as a result of the incident, but it seems to me they probably lost very little since most of the ships that were delayed simply waited at either end of the canal until it opened again. Only a few ships opted to take the longer route around the Cape of Good Hope.

So my idea is for the Suez Canal Authority to screw the ship’s owners and insurers for every penny they can get, retain a few million for their inconvenience and reward the pilot who created the windfall, then donate the remainder to research into preventing future incidents. To keep it all transparent they could invite suitable research institutes and other learned bodies to form joint ventures with salvage, towage and pilotage experts, etc, and bid on the project. The winner would be the joint venture that had all the requisite skills and offered the lowest price. I would even be prepared to offer my services to help them assess the bids, for a modest fee.

And they all lived happily ever after.

Alan Loynd

Alan Loynd is a master mariner with extensive seagoing and shore experience, especially in the areas of salvage and towage. He is the former General Manager of the renowned Hong Kong Salvage and Towage company. He now runs his own marine consultancy and was chairman of the International Tugmasters Association.