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The Andy Warhol moment

Splash’s chief opinion writer, Andrew Craig-Bennett, reflects on shipping’s 15 minutes of fame.

“There were no wrecks, and nobody drowned – fact, nothing to laff at at all…” (Stanley Holloway’s monologue about the boy Albert, who was eaten by a lion). Nobody was hurt, no property was damaged (this is important!) and there was no pollution. A quick calculation (15% of world trade by sea goes through the Suez Canal, and it was delayed by a week) suggests that 0.3% of world trade by sea was slightly affected. Cue stock market panics and miles of wittering in the financial press.

That was our industry’s 15 minutes of fame. It’s over. We will now go back to delivering boxes, so far as the people of the world are concerned. Some may remember that we also deliver food and fuel, but most will not. Everyone now knows what a 20,000 teu container ship looks like. It’s a rectangular box piled up with rectangular boxes.
How did we do? We performed according to type. Everyone ducked.

Evergreen: “Well, its not really our ship…” (why has it got your name on the side if you are not taking responsibility for it?).

Shoei Kisen: Held one press conference. In Japanese.

Bernard Schulte: Told the press to talk to their ‘crisis management’ people – who do not manage crises, they try to massage the public relations – and told their staff not to answer their phones.

The Suez Canal Authority: “Nothing to see here, just a routine grounding, move along please.”

Nippon Salvage: Said nothing to anybody. In fairness to Nippon, whose lawyers I worked for back in the dawn of time, they never do say anything, they just get on with it, because they don’t have shareholders that they need to talk to – they are owned by a syndicate of Japanese marine insurance companies, in one of those devastatingly sensible arrangements that Japan, Inc goes in for.

Boskalis: Well, after a shaky start, in which Smit-Wijsmuller had to remember who owns them at the moment, there was, as usual, no stopping Smit’s PR department, who have been running the company since Jan Hartog published his salvage tug novel, Holland’s Glorie, in 1940. Since which time the Dutch salvage industry and its public relations have been one and the same thing. Indeed, when I worked for Smit’s lawyers (same as Nippon’s lawyers) one of our problems was prising photographs out of the hands of the PR department in order to use them as evidence in Lloyds’ salvage arbitrations, which was, after all, where the cash flowed from. I hope my Dutch friends will resist their impulse to eat me, as they do with prime ministers who displease them, but, mijnheers, it’s true.

The UK P&I Club did the usual P&I Club Cheshire cat trick. All you get is the smile.

No human interest stories about the ship’s invisible crew, or indeed her two canal pilots. The last century produced three master mariners whose name made it into popular memory – Edward Smith of the Titanic, Henrik Kurt Carlsen of the Flying Enterprise and Joe Hazelwood of the Exxon Valdez. The master of the Ever Given is not joining them, because his employers are hiding.

At least Bernard Schulte haven’t made themselves quite as invisible as the crew managers of the Wakashio, a ship whose remains Nippon are still scraping off a reef in Mauritius. (Don’t worry, Anglo-Eastern, we haven’t forgotten you.)

As refloatings go, ‘boxboat stuck in mud’ doesn’t have quite the heroic ring of, say, Wijsmuller’s salvage of the capesize ore carrier Elwood Mead, which parked herself on Guernsey on her maiden voyage from Australia on Christmas Day in 1973 because her second officer fell asleep in the pilot chair (many pilot chairs were removed from wheelhouses after that!) taking 61 days, on an exposed reef in midwinter, to get her afloat on her tank tops. Still, the Ever Given was stuck, and then unstuck, so well done, everyone, and it might be a five percenter at most.

And I rather think that’s the end of the story. There was no property damage, and since there was no property damage, claims for pure economic loss are, in most legal systems, not recoverable in tort, so the UK Club can carry on smiling. The delay costs will be absorbed by the carriers, but freight rates are going up anyway, so we will all live with that.

Fame over!

Comments

  1. The rates anyway were on the trend of climbing up before the Ever Given grounding. Post the unsticking of EG, it’s just one more element to influence the rate hikes.

    1. Thank you, Stephen. I had forgotten all about them. As had everyone. No point waking them up now.

  2. Andrew- thanks for the summary, although I am not quite so cynical! The memes were terrific and even here in the States, Guy Platten of the ICS became a rock star on morning news television! I am hopeful the general public will begin to at least have a glimmer of their relationship with shipping and its invaluable service!

    One element you neglected to mention was the coverage that a GAC representative claimed the cause was propulsion failure. I was surprised to see it, albeit only once, as you know how tightly controlled statements are. I just wonder if that person is still employed by GAC?

    1. Carleen, I think our friend at GAC has probably earned a promotion, for tactfully agreeing with the Suez Canal Authority! I’m assuming that GAC were not Evergreen’s Agents, because they certainly will not be, now!

  3. A prosaic description for, in reality, a fairly prosaic incident. Spot on, Andrew.
    p.s. You could add Captain Richard Phillips (Maersk Alabama) to your list of “master mariners whose name made it into popular memory”. Afterall, they made a film about him, and named it after him.

    1. Yes, indeed. Add Captain Phillips. And two who ought to be remembered but are not are Charles Fryatt of the Great Eastern Railway’s SS “Brussels”executed for attempting to ram the submarine that was attempting to sink his ship, and Fogarty Fegen, posthumous VC, of the SS “Jervis Bay”.

  4. I hope while everyone is hiding under the veil, crew can hide too. Aren’t these giant ships operated without due considerations for the operational challenges for safe navigation in busy waterways and canals? Don’t the charterers exert utmost commercial pressure on crew, to keep the schedule in the liner service? Canal takes them in without tugs despite previous incidents with ultra large container ships and the pilots are hiding. Why shouldn’t the crew be allowed to hide too, while they operate these giant ships to reduce the overall sea freight?

  5. Thank you Andrew i thoroughly enjoyed the read. This is the kind of piece you want to share with your friends and family. Sadly few of them understand the mosaic of shipping and the different parts the various players contribute to the whole. In Bank Line we had enough of our fleet high and dry on various reefs, mostly around the Pacific to understand the cogs within cogs that goes with such events.

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