On March 23 the Ever Given, a ship the length of the Empire State Building, ran aground in the Suez Canal, causing a traffic jam of epic proportions in one of the busiest shipping routes on the planet. When it did this, it revealed a $20 trillion sector of the worldwide economy that otherwise functions behind the scenes.
The Ever Given was freed after six days, but Lawrence Brennan, a retired U.S. Navy Captain who served aboard the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier and now teaches admiralty and international maritime law at Fordham Law, said the snafu illustrates just how dependent we are on a system we often take for granted—one that has real vulnerabilities worth considering.
Full transcript below:
Lawrence Brennan: Look in your room, look in my room, look in the classroom, look everywhere, look in your closet. Everything that we buy today is most likely partially the result of global trade.
Patrick Verel: The other day, I did something absolutely unremarkable. Thinking about the warm summer months ahead, I shelled out $25 for a 10-foot long inflatable pool that had traveled some 7,000 miles to the store from its factory in China. I was able to do this thanks to a $20 trillion sector of the worldwide economy that became jarringly public on March 23rd when the Ever Given, a ship the length of the Empire State Building, ran aground in the Suez Canal, causing a traffic jam of epic proportions in one of the busiest shipping routes on the planet. The Ever Given was free after six days, but Lawrence Brennan, a retired US Navy Captain who served aboard the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier, and now teaches admiralty and international maritime law at Fordham Law, said the snafu illustrates just how dependent we are on a system we often take for granted, one that has real vulnerabilities worth considering. I’m Patrick Verel, and this is Fordham News.
So now the image of a seemingly tiny excavator trying to dig out the enormous bow of the Ever Given inspired some really clever memes on the internet. But in fact, there are some serious consequences to stacking 20,000 containers the size of tractor-trailers onto one boat. You said that this was an episode, that it was a little bit like the Hindenburg without the loss of life. Why that comparison?
LB Patrick, I’ve learned in 40 some years of doing this that somewhere between technology and liability, there’s an ascending risk. The larger the ship we build, the different types of propulsion we build, the more likely it is that there will be larger and less easy to handle casualties. So when we have a ship with 20,000 containers grounded and literally blocking all traffic north and south of the Suez Canal, that’s a billion or a trillion-dollar problem.
PV: The Hindenburg was a specific reference that you brought up in the sense of a shift in the way things might be done going forward.
LB: Absolutely. The Hindenburg is famous or notorious for the end of international air transportation, passenger transportation, until the end of World War II. At that time, people who were traveling between continents couldn’t just go to the airport and take an airplane. The ability of planes to fly that far wasn’t possible. The Germans built dirigibles before World War I, but they had one fatal flaw, as Hindenburg proved, hydrogen gas which was highly explosive. And that’s precisely what happened at the Naval Air Station Lakehurst in 1936 or 1937, when a fair number of the people on board were killed. Literally, the German international airline that ran Hindenburg ended transportation by dirigible.
PV: Do you think there might be a reckoning here for the idea, the wisdom of having ships this big plying these routes in areas where they could get stuck like this one did?
LB: Well, absolutely. This is like the trouble you have if a child who I should not have blamed, I should blame myself, stuck a large pencil in a narrow cup and it got wedged at top and bottom. And you put your fingers down and barely reach and you try to move it and neither side will move. You don’t want to break it in two. That’s the type of trouble the salvors had. And the fortuity here was that there was a proper full moon, a quarterly full moon that gave a magnificent tide and they were able to get the extra water off the ship to increase or decrease the draft a little and the tugs were there and they were able to move both ends off. But the people who run canals such as the Suez Canal particularly but also Panama Canal and others, need to consider what the limits of transportation are.
The length of this ship, Ever Given is limited by the statute or the regulation imposed by Suez Canal Authority. It has to be under 400 meters long. This ship was about a meter less than the maximum length. The international community also has to invest in assets to be able to respond when the fortuitous event or the intentional event occurs. You have to have assets, and we’ve seen that in the United States within the last two years with a car carrier that capsized in Brunswick, Georgia, and they’re still trying to cut up the ship and remove the wreck. And that was hundreds of millions of dollars of loss of cars and a ship.
PV: How important has the shipping industry become in our lives over the years?
LB: Look in your room, look in my room, look in the classroom, look everywhere, look in your closet. Everything that we buy today is most likely partially the result of global trade. There are very few things I can drive down to the Costco and say is a domestic product. If I want Qingdao beer, I’m having beer imported from a province in China. If I want Barry’s Tea, I’m having tea and ported from Ireland. If I want to be a fashionista like my older daughter who is a fashion lawyer, I need to buy things in Paris or London or wherever. And we’re talking about trillions of dollars of trade.
PV: It’s funny, I’m just thinking about the headlines that came out after that ship got stuck, and there was all this focus on the traffic jam. I remember reading that there were animals stuck on ships behind it, and there was some organization that was very concerned about whether or not they were all going to be fed or whether they would starve. And I remember just thinking, wait, what? Really? Even animals are traveling around through the Suez Canal on ships.
LB: Yeah. Animals travel, particularly to Muslim countries, because the lamb that are shipped are religiously acceptable. These are large ships with hundreds or thousands of lamb under deck and above deck. That’s how food travels. I’ve spent years becoming a quasi expert in the travel of soybean from the US Gulf Coast or Brazil to China and Japan. A shipload of soybean is $30 million depending on the exchange rate and the market rate, but that’s a common amount, and they can easily be damaged by delays in transit and by humidity or rain or improper ventilation. And pretty much things that we rely on for food, as well as clothing, as well as automobiles, petroleum, rocks, and things to manufacture, they all are imported today.
PV: Can you tell me a little bit about why the industry is still so important to New York City?
LB: New York has been, since the start of this nation and particularly during World War I and World War II, the major port of arrival and departure, both of US armies to Europe in 11917, 1918, and from 1941, the occupation of Iceland through the end of World War II in 1945. It was the manufacturing hub of heavy industry war material. Monitor, which won the Civil War at sea, was built in Brooklyn, but the economics of the port of New York, whether you’re importing oil for the industrial northeast, exporting grain, paper stuff, whatever you’re importing on a container ship, a bulk ship is important. But behind that is the economics of the international banking system, the international insurance system and the domestic insurance and banking system. Every piece of goods being shipped by sea is properly financed. It’s subject to a negotiable bill of lading and almost all are insured.
PV: I live in Brooklyn, and every summer my family goes over to Governor’s Island at least once, and I always get a kick out of looking back over towards Red Hook and seeing all those shipping containers. Do you know the connection between the shipping cranes and Star Wars?
PV: So the legend has it that if you watch, you know the movie Empire Strikes Back?
PV: George Lucas based the four-legged walkers on the cranes that he saw living in the Bay Area. So now every time I see a shipping crane, I think of Empire Strikes Back.
LB: They’re magnificent things. None of them are built in the United States. You have to see how they’re transported. They’re transported on really small, low ships as deck cargo. It’s the same type of ship that would lift a 10,000 ton US Navy destroyer.
PV: Talk to me about your classes. What’s unique about this sort of law and what do students typically use it for?
LB: It’s unique in that it is international law, and that I have to teach different US federal procedure jurisdiction in US federal courts and in state courts, and I have to teach some practices that are specifically maritime. I also teach evidence and procedure. Probably the best part of the class is that every year I learn more from my students than I teach them. They’re all different personalities with differing backgrounds. I get a few people who have been in the Navy, and I get some international students in the LLM program. We try to write a project at the end of the year. They have a choice. They can take an exam or they can write a final paper of 20 to 25 pages, and they can write any topic they can convince me is in some way attached to admiralty and international maritime law. And that’s not hard. If you can show me there’s some water linked to it and convince me, I am happy to do that.
I’ve had a fair number of students whose articles have been published, particularly in Fordham International Law Journal, and those who are cited. And I have a number of students who have gone on to practice admiralty, either part or full time.
PV: What was one of the most interesting papers one of your students wrote?
LB: A couple of piracy papers were excellent. There’s a recurring interest today in piracy because it’s the anniversary of the freeing of the officers on Maersk, Alabama that was seized and it became a famous movie. So, piracy cases are interesting. They present tremendous risk. In a sense, more difficult to predict than what we see with Marine casualties. You can go to the actuaries and you’ll see the statistics, and there will be a finite number in a range every year of fires on ships, of collisions, of strandings. Technology should reduce those, but when you get something like Ever Given, where it’s just off the charts and beyond what the insurers have prepared for, and the amount at risk is so large, that’s the game-changer.
The Ever Given as seen from the International Space Station on March 27
Photo courtesy of NASA JSC ISS image library