At 7:38 a.m., as it approached the irrigated fruit-tree groves of the ​​Al Ganayen district, the Ever Given veered toward the left bank, skimmed alongside it, then jerked hard to the right. The overcorrection was so severe that the bow swung toward the opposite bank like a harpoon. This time there was neither time nor room to undo the swerve. The bulb-shaped tip of Ever Given’s bow plunged 50 feet deep into the mud and sand of the canal bank. Maintaining its momentum, the stern swung around toward the far bank until it, too, was firmly lodged.

Kanthavel’s reaction: “Shit.”

Half a mile behind, on the bridge of the container ship Maersk Denver, marine engineer Julianne Cona aimed her camera forward and snapped an image of the Ever Given’s hull stretching from bank to bank. “From the looks of it,” she wrote on Instagram, “that ship is super stuck.”

Everyone wanted to know how it happened and who was to blame. It wasn’t merely a craving for lurid details; understanding how accidents happen is essential to making sure they don’t happen again. This is why around the world, transportation safety agencies carry out investigations and issue recommendations for rule changes. Egypt’s, unfortunately, does not have a great track record. Accidents that occur under its purview tend to be enmeshed in intrigue and controversy. More than 1,000 of the 1,400 ferry passengers on the al-Salam Boccaccio 98 died when it sank in the Red Sea in 2006. The government initially blamed the captain, but a subsequent parliamentary investigation laid the blame on the ferry’s owner, Mamdouh Ismail, a businessman and politician with close ties to then president Hosni Mubarak. Acquitted in a 2008 trial, he was later retried, convicted, and sentenced to seven years in prison, though he never served time, and the conviction was later erased.

With the Ever Given, the Egyptian government evinced no doubt as to who was responsible. Within hours, it declared, with no evidence, that the ship had run aground due to an engine failure. After it became clear that this was not true, Egypt asserted that the captain was to blame for sailing at such high speed. In response, the ship’s insurers issued a statement pointing out that when a ship is traveling through the canal in a convoy its speed “is controlled by the Suez Canal pilots and SCA vessel traffic management services.”

Nevertheless, the canal authority filed a legal claim demanding $916.5 million from the ship’s owners, citing, among other things, the cost of salvaging the boat and the damage to Egypt’s international reputation. Maritime legal experts were skeptical about the basis for this claim. “They’re obviously just sort of thinking up numbers,” said Martin Davies, head of Tulane University’s Maritime Law Center.

And Egypt’s allegations were extraordinarily vague. To understand how, exactly, things had gone so wrong, I turned to a French institution with unique insight into the issue: Port Revel, a ship-handling school 50 miles south of Lyon. Its origins date to the 1950s, when the oil company Esso (now Exxon) began to worry that its newer, larger tankers might erode the bottom of the Suez Canal. Engineers built scaled-down ships and sailed them around miniature canals to test the hydrology. Eventually, the program turned into a training facility, where ship officers and pilots could get hands-on training at the helm of 1/25-scale ships.

On a summer morning Port Revel’s director, François Mayor, took me out in a miniature tanker to demonstrate the difficulties of canal navigation. A light breeze ruffled the leaves of the birch trees along a grass-lined ditch that stood in for the Suez Canal. Although Port Revel’s ships are small, they are faithful to proportion, and the force of the morning breeze on the model’s hull was about what Ever Given encountered on its fateful day.

“A very big ship is like a sailboat,” Mayor declared. He set the boat at an angle, so that the forward thrust matched that of the wind. To compensate for an even stronger wind, he could either angle more into the wind, or go faster. But in the narrow confines of a canal, you can’t angle more. You can only go faster.

The problem is that in a canal, the faster you go, the more the propellers suck water away from the gap between the hull and the bottom of the canal. The pressure drops, reducing the effectiveness of the rudder. The controls become a sloppy mess. “When you start to think that the helmsman isn’t good, it’s time to think about your speed,” said Mayor’s colleague Bruno Mercier, a former Marseille pilot. “As soon as you see the zigzag, it would be better to slow down.”

The dynamic is implacable: To stay straight, you need to go faster, but if you go too fast, you lose control. The simple way to cut this Gordian knot, according to Mayor, are the tugboats, which can shove and pull a ship as needed to cancel the effects of the wind. This is what Mayor told Suez Canal officials they must do when they came to visit Port Revel in 2016, and this is what the rules say the Ever Given should have done.

And so it sat sweltering in the heat as March rolled into April. The crew worried. They had no idea how long they might be stuck. Another ship at anchor in the Great Bitter Lake, the Aman, had already been sitting there for four years. That ship, too, had been “arrested” due to a dispute between the ship’s owners and the Egyptian authorities. A Syrian sailor named Mohammed Aisha had been forced to spend much of that time aboard the ship alone. For a long time, the Egyptians wouldn’t even let him leave the ship, until he started swimming ashore to buy food. After that they cut him some slack and let him paddle ashore on a makeshift raft. Finally, at the end of April—almost exactly a month after Ever Given’s grounding—the Egyptians let Aisha go, and he flew home.

The Ever Given crew’s vigil was less lonely, and they were able to enjoy the same modern conveniences that they did on the open sea, like air-conditioning and internet access. They had a comfortable lounge and mess hall, and each crew member had private chambers outfitted like a hotel room, with desk, television, and refrigerator. But they were anxious. They had no idea how long they’d be forced to stay, or if Egypt might decide to press criminal charges. “It’s an endless tunnel,” says Abdulgani Serang, general secretary of the National Union of Seafarers of India, to which the crew belonged. “It takes a toll physically and mentally.”

There was absolutely nothing they could do while the negotiations dragged on. The Egyptians were holding out for an enormous sum. The $916 million was four times what the Ever Given itself was worth, and close to what the ship and its cargo were worth altogether. Shoei Kisen, the owners, countered with an offer of $150 million. But Egypt held all the cards. The ship was in its jurisdiction, and the longer the haggling dragged on, the less the cargo was worth. Produce began to spoil; holiday decorations missed their sell-by date. “Quite a lot of this cargo is going to be effectively useless,” says Davies, the Tulane professor.

Eventually, Egypt knocked its price down to $550 million. After three months, the parties reached an agreement. Shoei Kisen agreed to pay an undisclosed amount and pledged that it would remain a “regular and loyal customer of the Suez Canal.” The Ever Given pulled up its anchor on July 7 and sailed north to Port Said, at the northern end of the canal, where divers inspected its hull for structural damage. Given the all clear, the Ever Given finally set out to sea a week later, bound for Rotterdam.

For the Indian crew, their release was a relief. For others in the maritime industry, the feeling was exasperation. The SCA had run a ship aground, then forced the ship’s owner and insurers to pay an enormous fee for the mistake. Here was an important coda to the iron law of free-market competition: If you can seize a monopoly, you can extract wealth without accountability.

For the shipping companies that use the canal, there isn’t the comfort of knowing that steps will be taken to prevent a repeat. As stipulated under international law, Panama is conducting an investigation, with results likely to be released next year. But given Egypt’s record with past investigations, it’s unlikely it will brook any criticism of the canal authority, let alone take steps to address shortcomings there. So it shouldn’t come as a great surprise if the exact same kind of grounding happens again, along with the attendant brouhaha. The fundamental problem is that the people who are entrusted with the safe passage of the ships bear no actual responsibility. “No matter how badly the pilot screws up,” says KomLosy, “it’s still the captain that’s responsible. It’s kind of unfair, but that’s the way it is.”

And that’s the way it has been for a long time, which is why many people doubt that the Ever Given’s travails will impact demand for the waterway. “I don’t think it’s going to stop people from using the canal,” says Davies.

Then again, if accidents like Ever Given’s keep occurring, things may shift. While ships traveling between Asia and Europe will always have a strong incentive to take the shortcut through the Suez, those on other routes have more flexibility and might rethink their options. “If ships are starting to have accidents because of pilots, the calculus could change for some ships,” says one industry insider. “That would give Egypt a motivation to change.”

After crossing the Mediterranean and turning north, the Ever Given reached its port of call, Rotterdam, on July 29, 129 days after its grounding. Containers unloaded, it sailed on to Felixstowe, England, where the rest of the cargo found its way off for dispatch to its ultimate destinations. Then the Ever Given headed back out to sea, bound for a repair yard in China. Its route was never really in question. It went through the Suez Canal.

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