The untold story of the big boat that broke the world

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DAY AFTER DAY, the 24-person crew duly go about their tasks. Routine maintenance is performed. Fire drills are carried out. Minimum safe manning standards are kept. Everything is ready and raring to go. But this ship hasn’t moved for months – and most of its inhabitants haven’t set foot on land since they set sail more than 100 days ago. All they can do is wait.

Outside, the Egyptian sun slowly simmers cargo headed for the UK and Germany, as well as trains destined for central and eastern Europe – wiring, lawnmowers and gazebos which will one day be bound for assembly lines, supermarket shelves and homes across the continent. Alongside surgical gowns, wheelchair parts and sun loungers, there’s also plenty of food: tea leaves, lemons and tofu all rot away in the heat. None of it can be offloaded.

This is the Ever Given, the same ship that launched a thousand memes when it got stuck across the Suez Canal on March 23 and held up nearly $60 billion of trade. It took a week of tugs, dredging and a crack team of salvage experts to free the 220,000-tonne megaship. As the Ever Given set sail once more, horns blared out in triumph. Yet its next unscheduled stopover lay just 30 kilometres away in Great Bitter Lake where it was towed for a seemingly routine inspection. It’s been anchored there ever since.

The vessel is stuck once more – this time by an almighty international legal row. By mid-April, it had been impounded, with the Suez Canal Authority, or SCA, slapping a claim against its owners in an Egyptian court. The salvage fee? Nearly $1bn. “I’ve seen cases like this but on a much smaller scale,” explains maritime solicitor Jai Sharma of law firm Clyde & Co, which represents the insurers of more than $100 million worth of cargo on board the Ever Given. “What sets this apart is the amount of money being requested – it’s far, far beyond what anyone in our industry would expect.”

With negotiations at an impasse, the Ever Given’s Indian crew remain stuck on board a ship that cannot sail. And there’s only so much work to do for a ship that’s going nowhere. The Ever Given does at least have Wi-Fi to help pass the time and stave off cabin fever. There’s also a toll-free counselling helpline for the crew and their families. “Being in anchorage for so long definitely dampens the spirits,” says Abdulgani Serang, who heads the National Union of Seafarers of India, which has visited the crew on board. “But, in this case, it comes with the baggage of the Suez Canal incident, which adds to their trauma.”

The Ever Given was due to dock at Rotterdam on April 3, where much of its estimated $700m worth of cargo was to be offloaded and forwarded on to the rest of Europe. In the time that it’s idled, more than 4,000 vessels have passed it by on Great Bitter Lake. The delay has been so long that seven crew members have returned home following the end of their contracts. But the SCA’s requirement that the ship is operational means that six replacement seafarers have been drafted in from India – notwithstanding the Delta variant of Covid-19 that has torn through the country.

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