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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

How the Suez Canal Fiasco Could Change Global Shipping

Last week, the cargo ship Ever Given got itself stuck in the Suez Canal for six days. The blockage completely disrupted maritime trade routes, captured worldwide attention, and became the subject of many online lulz. The ship has since been freed, but the repercussions will be felt for months to come.

This week, WIRED transportation writer Aarian Marshall joins us to talk about why the Ever Given got stuck—and how the shipping industry might prevent this kind of absurd catastrophe in the future.

Show Notes

Read Aarian’s story about the big boat that got stuck in the Suez Canal here. Read her story about the various problems with the shipping industry lately here. Read about how cargo ships could help detect tsunamis here. Watch Lauren’s video about Peloton here. Read one of Nick Thompson’s many running stories here.


Aarian recommends the Moft laptop stand. Lauren recommends Peloton’s Marathon training program. Mike recommends the relaxing Environments app.

Aarian Marshall can be found on Twitter @AarianMarshall. Lauren Goode is @LaurenGoode. Michael Calore is @snackfight. Bling the main hotline at @GadgetLab. The show is produced by Boone Ashworth (@booneashworth). Our theme music is by Solar Keys.

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Michael Calore: Lauren.

Lauren Goode: Mike.

MC: Lauren, would you say that the ship has sailed on the Ever Given story?

LG: Mike, I personally cannot get enough boat content. I see waves and I go click. So my question now I guess is, what is the future of shipping now that the Ever Given is free?

MC: I would have to say that you really are a nerd.

LG: I think we all are.

[Gadget Lab intro theme music]

MC: Hi everyone. Welcome to Gadget Lab. I am Michael Calore, a senior editor at WIRED.

LG: And I'm Lauren Goode. I'm a senior writer at WIRED.

MC: We're also joined this week by WIRED's transportation writer, Aarian Marshall.

Aarian Marshall: Hello.

MC: Welcome back to the show. It's so good to have you here.

AM: It's so good to be here once again.

MC: You might have heard about the big boat that got stuck in the Suez Canal last week. It was only one of the biggest stories on the internet. The cargo freighter Ever Given was cruising through the canal when it ran aground, drifted sideways, and got stuck there, completely blocking one of the world's major shipping routes. The giant freighter stayed stuck for a long time, six whole days. That whole time no other boats could get past the Ever Given, the shipping industry scrambled to figure out what to do, and global trade was thrown into chaos. On Monday of this week, the ship was set free, trade started moving again, and the flood of hilarious memes on the internet is now slowing to a trickle.

LG: Ba-dum dum, Sorry … go ahead.

MC: But the fallout of this fiasco will be felt for weeks and months to come. So later in the show, we're going to talk about how the shipping industry might hopefully avoid this kind of silly catastrophe in the future. But first we need to bring everyone up to speed on the big boat. Aarian, you've written stories about this, and you've been reporting on it since it happened, so please walk us through what went down in the Suez Canal.

LG: And also Aarian, if I might ask you, because this is Gadget Lab, if you could please evaluate the Ever Given as though it is a gadget, thank you very much.

AM: Oh my gosh. I wouldn't even know how to begin to do that. So it was last Tuesday, Egypt time, that reports started to trickle out that there was a big old container ship stuck in the Suez Canal. We're not going to exactly know what happened for some time probably, and the reason for that is because there are so many insurers and lawyers involved here that they have to do a very big investigation. But it sounds like what happened is that there was a big sand storm, a wind storm around the canal. The Ever Given is a gigantic ship. And I imagine we'll talk more about this later, but container ships keep getting bigger and bigger and bigger. And this ship, it's at least 12 stories high with all its containers on top of it, really, truly gigantic.

So it sounds like the wind just caught the containers like a sail and neatly wedged the ship into the side of the Suez Canal, and no one could get by in either direction. Ships having issues in the canal is not totally unheard of, but usually they're able to pull over on one side on the bank and people can sort of work on them; that did not happen this time. It really got stuck in the sand, and it took six days to get it out. And it was extremely stressful for a lot of people involved in this gigantic global shipping industry.

MC: So when something like this happens, who's in charge? Who do you call? Do you have the canal cops or something?

AM: Yeah. So there's this Suez Canal Authority, which is run by Egypt. And the other interesting thing I learned about canal operations while I was reporting on this story is that there are canal pilots who get on the ships and are in charge of guiding the ship through the canal. Clearly something went very wrong here. But yeah, there's a body that's in charge of operating the canal, and yes, they had to act as canal cops and construction people to get this ship out of trouble.

LG: And what exactly was on the ship?

AM: We don't know everything that's on it, because these are private companies, and they're not necessarily all scrambling to say, like, Oh my shipment of golf carts or whatever, whatever's on there, got stuck. We know that the ship was going from China to northern Europe. Its next stop was Rotterdam in the Netherlands, and we know at least some of the things that were on there. According to some records that an analyst I talked to got a hold of, there was some ginger on there, there were some men's track suits. There was some children's clothing. But you can kind of guess that really everything that is made in Asia, which is everything, might've been on here. A huge mix of stuff.

We also know that so many ships were stuck behind the Ever Given, both in the Mediterranean and on the other side toward Asia. There was livestock, living beings stuck on ships, which was really sad. There were at least 130,000 sheep that were supposed to go to Romania. So like literally anything you can think of was either on the Ever Given or on ships that were trapped by the Ever Given.

LG: OK, so once the ship gets stuck and people or equipment are sent out to try to free it, who ultimately pays for that, where does that funding come from?

AM: That's a great question. I imagine it's the Canal Authority, but I don't know for sure. I do know that the Canal Authority has a lot of things ready in the canal to deal with situations. For example, they have a bunch of tugboats and construction equipment standing by to deal with stuff. There were at least 12 tugboats that were at different points, either pulling or pushing this ship. So they had some stuff ready. Minor incidents happen sometimes, they're ready to deal with those. But this was such a weird freak thing that they had to call in a specialized salvage crew, people who specifically deal with fixing ships in place and making sure everything is OK, making sure the equipment isn't going to hurt anyone. It's a whole sort of infrastructure there, an industry dedicated to helping ships be their best selves.

MC: One of the responses we saw to the incident was earth-moving equipment, because the ship ran into the sandy shore of the Suez Canal, they were digging up the sand. And we saw this photograph of an earthmover digging away at the Suez Canal with a giant ship standing next to it, and that birthed a lot of memes. There was also, I think it was the Egypt Canal Authority who put together these sizzle reels showing the officials doing their job.

AM: Yeah. Amazing content out of Egypt this past week. But yeah, they brought in dredgers to make the canal wider, a lot of stuff. And yeah, the sizzle reels of a lot of guys in suits kind of like, with their hands on their hips, looking up and being like, “That ship is stuck!” which I really appreciated.

LG: What was your favorite meme? Both of you?

AM: I can't remember any specific ones. My mind is like a Swiss cheese at this point.

LG: I liked the one that showed the boat and it said “Covid-19 Pandemic” on it. And then I think the digger was like, “One session with my therapist,” or something like that. Thought that was pretty good.

MC: My favorite meme was a recreation of the front cover of the Slint album. So there's this famous front cover of an album by a band named Slint. It's an indie rock legend with the four band members in a body of water, and somebody had Photoshopped the boat behind them in the background. That was my favorite.

LG: That is so perfect for you, Mike.

MC: It really is, it's why I brought it as an example.

LG: It's very on-brand. OK. So Aarian, you mentioned that boats are getting bigger, right? And I imagine that's because our shiploads are increasing. So what's the thought process behind having these kinds of freighters just become larger and larger versus, I don't know, increasing frequency of shipping or some other solution?

AM: It's an efficiency thing. It is easier at port for people to load and unload these gigantic ships than having a bunch of tiny ships going in and out. And the industry as a whole made a decision more than a decade ago that this was the way it was going to be. And the reason we know that's the case is because there were these huge dredging projects that went on around the world to make the ports deeper, so they could accommodate these ships. But it is true that this is really something that's sort of blown up in the past few years. Ever Given, when it made its debut in 2018, was one of the biggest container ships in the world. It is big enough to carry over 20,000 20-foot-equivalent container units. And they keep getting bigger and bigger. Now in China they're building a 25,000-TEU vessel. And it seems like down the line, they're going to have to keep dredging these ports to make them deeper. So there's going to be some infrastructure that needs to be relined to deal with this, but in all, it just seems like it's more efficient. Everyone wants to get more efficient.

MC: Yeah. So we can keep buying more and more stuff.

AM: Yes.

MC: All right. Well, let's take a break right now. And when we come back, we're going to talk about how this incident might change the maritime shipping industry in the future.


MC: Welcome back. So the Ever Given has been freed and the Suez Canal is once again open for business, but it's clear from this debacle that the shipping industry has some issues. If the system falters when one boat blocks one trade route, it might be time to rethink our approach to global shipping. Luckily, experts and technologists are already working on that. Aarian, can you tell us what kinds of lessons the experts are taking away from this?

AM: Yeah. So there are definitely a few. I think a conversation that's been happening for a while, and I imagine will only become more important going forward, is this question of, well, should these ships be getting as big as they are? Do we need these gigantic ships? Is there a better way to go? And some of that is the result of questioning what happens when, just in terms of physics, when you have a huge square thing that weighs hundreds of thousands of tons on the water. Is that safe? The interesting thing about container ships is that—the Ever Given is really big, as long as four football fields, and there were probably only about 24 people on the ship. There aren't a ton of people on these, which is good for efficiency and keeping things cheap. But if something goes wrong, it means that there's not a lot of people there to deal with it. So there are these big questions about, OK, should these ships be as big as they are right now?

MC: So has the now year-long pandemic affected the shipping industry and the way they approach this stuff?

AM: Oh man. Yes, definitely. So something that's happened during the pandemic, particularly in North America, is not everyone is doing well economically for sure, we're in a recession. But the people who do have money are not spending it on going out to dinner or going on vacations, they're just buying stuff. I know that I personally am talking from a little home office that I had to create out of furniture that I ordered online, that I didn't have before, because I went into an office before. And a ton of people have done that, and that requires shipping. The other thing that's happening is that cargo flights were stopped at the beginning of the pandemic because of issues with the virus, but the shipping industry was able to keep going. So there's these huge ships that are now even more heavily filled than usual coming over from Asia.

And there are all these traffic jams at ports. There's been a huge traffic jam outside of the port of LA for a long time, the port of Long Beach, and in Oakland, so a lot is going on in the shipping industry during the pandemic. Another result is that there's actually this worldwide container shortage. There are only so many containers in the world, and they're all stuck in North America right now. So there's a lot of ships traveling from North America back to Asia that have just empty containers on them, because there's not as much stuff going from North America to Asia. So it's really kind of reordered the way that this gigantic industry is working.

LG: You've done some reporting on how things could change, innovation basically, in the shipping industry. And I want to get into some of the specifics of that, but first maybe talk a little bit about where that innovation is ultimately going to come from.

AM: I think the place where we've seen the most innovation so far in the maritime industry is from the public sector. We've seen the US Navy make some investments into the idea of autonomous ship. How could we use that? How could that benefit us? The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, has also made some investments here. But based on some conversations I've been having with people who focus on the maritime industry, there's actually not a ton of private interest in investing in new technologies. For example, using artificial intelligence to help the people who pilot ships have more situational awareness or awareness of weather conditions, all that stuff happens on a base level, but folks I've talked to say there's a lot of potential to really up the game in the maritime industry. It's just about getting VC people interested in this thing. It'll be interesting to see whether this incident in the Suez Canal, which created so much interest in what's often a really overlooked industry, will translate into more funding for maritime technology.

LG: Maybe we should stage a boat traffic jam off the coast of Miami, and then all the VCs who live there will become very interested in it.

AM: Yes. Something that screws up the Barry's schedule.

LG: Yes.

AM: We have a plan.

MC: So a lot of the operations of the shipping industry comes down to logistics, right? Deciding where resources get allocated, which ships go which way. Who's doing the big work in logistics these days?

AM: I'd say the big name in logistics is probably Flexport, which is a company that uses novel data sources to give more insight into how the supply chain is working. Something interesting that I learned about while reporting on the container shipping industry is just how few sensors and tracking technologies exist in this industry. It's all technology that's out there, and it's used in other sorts of logistics industries, but shipping for some reason—I think in part because of the really tight margins—doesn't generally invest in figuring out where all the goods are at every point of the supply chain. And I think there are some startups out there that see that as a business opportunity.

MC: I imagine it's probably also harder because it's a global system, right? Like in the US you have the US Department of Transportation, which can tell you the location of any vehicle that's government owned or government operated at any time, because everything is so loaded with sensors. But data transparency between governments has always been an issue.

AM: Yeah, definitely. And data standards, making sure it's in the right forms so that it's readable for everyone. I think there are just some issues that still need to be hammered out.

LG: So we also ran a story on WIRED.com this week about the ways in which sensors could be used on giant ships to track tsunamis. And these aren't necessarily the kinds of tsunami events, the stuff of nightmares that are real and happen in coastal zones, but more of the tsunamis that happen out in the middle of the ocean and are hard for scientists and researchers to track. But if you have sensors attached to these ships, they might be able to over time measure this sort of gradual rise in ocean levels to indicate, OK, maybe a tsunami happened there. And I'm wondering about sensors in ships in general, and whether or not using these kinds of tracking devices could help prevent what just happened with the Ever Given? Like if there was something that picked up the wind well in advance or some other pattern in the ocean before it headed into the canal.

AM: Yeah. I don't exactly know the answer to that question. I suspect that that kind of technology is better for ships that are just out in the open ocean and dealing with the mysteries of what goes on there. The Suez Canal is pretty narrow, and this seemed to be a kind of freak accident, but I think that story is great, and I think it raises a lot of interesting questions about whether there are things to be measured out in the ocean that would not only make the shipping industry more efficient, which is obviously a huge priority for them, but also make it safer.

MC: I want to encourage everybody to read Aarian's story that she wrote about the efforts to free the Ever Given. And also I think you have a story coming out next week, that's going to talk about some of the people looking to improve logistics in worldwide shipping, is that right?

AM: Indeed.

MC: Excellent. So you can all look forward to that. You can also look forward to our recommendations, which we are going to do after this break.


MC: All right. Welcome back. This is the last portion of our show, where we ask our guests and hosts to recommend something to listen to, enjoy, or consume. Aarian, you are our guest, so you go first, please tell us your recommendation.

AM: OK. I actually have a product this time. I feel like every time I come on here, I say something vague, like spring cleaning or taking walks.

LG: It must be a Washington, DC, thing, because Gilad does the same thing when he joins us.

AM: It's terrible. But I have a laptop stand that I've been using called the Moft laptop stand that sticks onto the bottom of your laptop, and it's only 3 ounces, so it's super light. I was just visiting my vaccinated parents for a few days, for the first time in a long time, and I brought my laptop to do work, and the stand made it feel like I could maintain my posture, which I really appreciated. So that is my recommendation.

LG: How tall is it? How much of a boost does it give the machine?

AM: Well, I'm looking at it right now, and I'm terrible at estimating these things, but it's probably about 5 inches.

LG: Oh yeah. Look at that. It's pretty nifty. I'm looking at a photo on the internet right now.

AM: Yeah. I like it.

LG: It's pretty sleek, and it looks like it would be easy to pack. It's basically like the smart stand that you get with your iPad, the smart cover. It looks like a version of that, but for your MacBook.

AM: Yeah. And it just lives on the bottom of my laptop now.

MC: Very cool.

LG: Surely nice.

MC: Totally getting one.

LG: That's cool.

MC: Lauren, what is your recommendation?

LG: My recommendation is spring cleaning.

MC: Five stars.

LG: Five stars. No. OK. So my recommendation, I have to say with a caveat, I'm not making any commitments here, but I started using the Peloton marathon training program. Some of you may know that a few of us at WIRED are Peloton users. In fact, I just made a video about it online, on the Twitter. So go to WIRED's Twitter account and you can find that video. But you don't have to have the Peloton treadmill or bike in order to use the mobile app. And so on the mobile app, there are a bunch of different workouts and programs, and one of the programs is the Road to 26.2. It breaks it into two parts. It's really designed for first-time marathon runners. I have never run a marathon before. I've run half marathons, and whenever I finished a half marathon, I said to myself, I don't think I could do that twice in a row. So this would be a really big thing if I did it. But I just started using the marathon training app for fun, and so far, I am enjoying it.

MC: Nice. When is your first marathon going to be then?

LG: Well …

MC: Public declaration of intent, it's very important.

LG: I guess if I were to do it, it'd probably be in the fall, like San Francisco in the fall …

AM: Yeah. Do San Francisco.

LG: … which is in September, and it looks like a really, really fun race. But I don't know. I did actually talk to our former boss, Nick Thompson, who is a big marathon runner—some of you may know that. We'll link to his stories in the show notes, because he's written some great stories about it. Annoyingly, he just has gotten faster and faster with age. But I said to him recently, "So Nic,k I'm looking at this program and I'm wondering, is it normal to think you want to do a marathon and then look at the program and think, oh, this sucks." And he said, "No, the training is the fun part. The training is when you enter into this meditative state. If you don't want to do the training, it's probably not for you." And I was like, oh, OK. So I'm trying the training to see if I can achieve that meditative state.

MC: Well, I have a recommendation that can help you achieve that meditative state, even when you're not running, which is way more fun.

LG: OK, what is it.

MC: I'm going to recommend an audio app, it's called Environments. You can download it. It's from a company called Numero Group, they're a record label. They specialize in reissues, so they find things that were recorded in the '50s and '60s and '70s, and they repackage them and remaster them and put them out with great art. This is sort of part of that. It's a digital reissue of a series of records that were put out, recorded in the late '60s and early '70s, and they were all called Environments and they were numbered. So like Environments 1, Environments 2, Environments 3.  Each one was, on an LP, a side-long field recording. So you have all these recordings of things like dawn at the swamp, or people chanting, or a gentle rain in a pine forest, the waves crashing on a beach.

This is before the whole New Age sound recording things sort of took over that corner of the record industry so these were really pioneering recordings. The numeric group has digitized all of them and put them into this app and you can buy the app for $3. And when you buy the app, it's not streaming, it's all just, you download them onto your phone and you can listen to them at any time. You can also loop them, you can build a playlist. One thing you can't do is Google cast to them or send them to an airplane device because the app has sort of a fun, different interface. It's not like your traditional Spotify interface so that kind of stuff is a little more difficult.

But if you listen in headphones with a Bluetooth speaker, it's a fantastic listening experience so that is my recommendation. If you want to try before you buy, all of those remastered environments are available on the streaming services, whichever one you use. But the cool thing about the app in addition to not having to stream them and you've already downloaded them if you have the app, is that there's the liner notes are in the app. So you can see the original art and you can see some of the liner notes like how they originally talked about it back in the '70s and how they're talking about it now in 2021. So that is my recommendation, Environments from the Numero Group.

LG: I love how the main image on the website is just an ocean shoreline and it's called Psychologically Ultimate Seashore.

MC: Yeah, I think the story about that is the guy recorded it and he's like, this is the most perfect seashore recording I've ever heard, and then went out and recorded a bunch of others and none of them match that first one. So he called that one, The Psychologically Perfect Seashore.

LG: That's amazing. They're also, one's called Summer Cornfield, Creaky sailboat, Country Stream, Blizzard. This is a soundtrack to your own very dramatic life movie.

AM: My dad just got his first iPhone and this seems extremely up his alley. He's very into like Gary Snyder poetry.

MC: Oh, Absolutely. This is the best $3 that he will spend this year.

AM: He's going to get this.

MC: Nice. All right. Well Aarian, thank you of course, as always for joining our show this week.

AM: Thank You for having me. It's so nice to see you.

LG: So great to hear from you again.

MC: So nice to talk to somebody who gives a ship.

AM: Oh, no.

LG: Yes.

MC: I'm very, very sorry. But yes, thank you for joining us and thank you all for listening. If you have feedback, you can find all three of us on Twitter, just check the show notes. This show is produced by Boone Ashworth, who is also on Twitter. We will be back next week. Goodbye.

[Gadget Lab outro theme music]

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