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Suez Canal blockage investigators shine spotlight on Ever Given crew

Billions of dollars at stake as experts try to explain who or what is to blame for the cargo ship’s grounding

Experts have boarded the Ever Given to launch an investigation into how the 400-metre-long container ship became stuck in the Suez Canal.

More than 300 vessels were still waiting to pass through the vital trade passage as the probe began on Tuesday, less than 24 hours after the refloating of the Panama-flagged, Japanese-owned freighter ended the six-day blockage.

Investigators are questioning two Egyptian pilots from the Suez Canal Authority (SCA) who were aboard when the Ever Given got wedged across a southern section of the waterway, but “legal responsibility for the navigation of a ship usually rests with its master”, The Telegraph reports.

Lawyers have “predicted costly litigation ahead as affected parties seek to minimise their losses” from the maritime traffic jam, which “held up an estimated £6.5bn in global trade every day”, as well as costing Egypt daily toll fees of up to $15m, the paper adds.  

The SCA is also expected to charge the Ever Given’s owners, ship-leasing company Shoei Kisen Kaisha, for damage to the canal and the cost of the rescue effort.

SCA chair Osama Rabie “has suggested weather conditions, including high winds, and human error could have played a role in the grounding”, on 23 March, Reuters reports.

The “investigation will include examining the seaworthiness of the ship and its captain’s actions, to help determine the causes”, an advisor to Rabie told the news agency.

The Ever Given is now anchored in the Great Bitter Lake, a stretch of water halfway between the north and south ends of the canal, where experts are examining the ship for signs of damage, an unnamed “senior canal pilot” told The Associated Press (AP).

Damage to the haulier is believed to have been sustained “mostly on the bottom”, Al Jazeera reports. The ship’s operator, Taiwan-based Evergreen Marine Corp, was deciding whether the vessel, which was en route from China  “would be repaired on-site in Egypt or elsewhere”, and  “whether it would eventually head to its initial destination of Rotterdam”, the news site adds.

‘Job of the decade’

What happened to the Ever Given was not so much a grounding as a “whaling”, writes Financial Times contributing editor and boat correspondent Brendan Greeley. The freighter “punched through” boulders lining the canal and “wedged its bow bulb in the soft sand beyond it”, he continues.

While the reasons for the grounding have yet to be determined, one possible explanation is that westerly winds “coming from the ship’s left” and “pushing it to the right” caused the ship’s pilot to try to steer back on course towards the Mediterranean exit of the canal by heading into the gusts. 

Data on Ever Given’s course from tracking service VesselFinder indicates that the ship then lurched left during “a temporary lull” in the wind, “meaning the Ever Given was over-adjusted to its left”, Greeley suggests.

Whatever happened, working out exactly how the Ever Given got stuck “will be the job of the decade for marine accident investigators”, says Sky News. And a second major challenge facing the investigators is where to end the line of culpability as shipping companies line up to claim compensation.

Under normal circumstances, about 12% of global trade passes through the 120-mile canal each day, so these claims could amount to a vast total.

As The Telegraph notes, delays caused by the Ever Given were “transmitted and magnified through lengthy supply chains, where at each rung contracts are now likely to miss delivery deadlines”.

Matthew Taylor, a dispute resolution partner at London-based law firm Eversheds Sutherland, told the paper that the resulting compensation disputes would almost certainly drag on for many years.

“It’s like a domino effect and you’ll see deadlines missed down the line,” he explained. “Where that gets complicated, litigious and difficult is that each of those contracts may be in different jurisdictions around the world, giving rise to multiple claims in multiple jurisdictions.”

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