What happened to the Ever Given's perishable goods?

Most metal folk in the jargon of our trade refer to ‘shipping containers’ as boxes. Boxes, stacked like children’s plastic bricks to travel across oceans. To see a container ship edging out across Southampton Water with the insouciance of a train leaving Waterloo Station gives the impression of a small Italian hill town village on the move. And I'm told it looks even more imposing from a sailing boat on the Solent.

This is how the world has transported consumables for the last 65 years; a revolution that changed the way docks worked, reducing at one and the same time the quantity of workers employed as well as opportunities for pilfering. Our goods instead are now tracked across nature’s high seas by satellite and loaded and discharged by robots. Who in our metals trade has not been thankful to the world of containers for their convenience?

But in the last few years a trade imbalance with the Far East, causing empty containers to require repatriation, made the cost of boxes to China or Japan ridiculously cheap. So cheap that it was easier for a minor metals company, such as ours, to load one metric ton of dangerous goods into an FCL (say, a marine pollutant like Thallium or dual use item like Zirconium) rather than use an LCL. With careful positioning of dunnage to prevent movement, the consignee has the convenience to access goods speedily at destination, avoiding random customs-checks at discharge and load ports on other title-holder's consignments.

However, this year, containerization hit its first big storm. At the beginning of 2021, a confluence of events (to use another watery term) caused prices for 1 TEU (Twenty Foot Equivalent) container to rocket tenfold from $2000 to $20,000. When Covid further exacerbated the trade deficit between Europe and China, UK and other European countries (denuded of manufacturing) depended on the nation that was the source of the virus for the PPE to mitigate it. As China’s exports increased to meet our demands, ports such as Shanghai, subject to sudden temporary Covid closures, caused shipping traffic chaos with vessel positions up the creek (as it were).

The goods most affected weren’t metals (because elemental values are high enough to absorb cost) but matters were not so easy for fluffy toys or perishables. A close personal shipping friend told me that even ‘break bulk’ had come back into fashion with old rust buckets that could access smaller ports diverted to fill up holds with anything from woodchip to flat-pack furniture. In other news, inappropriate vessels are being requisitioned, and D-rings welded on decks to harness containers and liberate them from the ports where they have been dumped. In one case a vessel departing China, was so overloaded the containers plunged through the deck into the holds two days into the voyage, forcing the vessel to limp back into port.

And then the ‘Ever Given’ happened...

It did not seem serious to begin with. A few metal people ended up short to customers in Europe for a few tons of Chinese Bismuth or Gallium, while those with Chinese-origin metals on the ground made a premium for prompt delivery. It was a bit like a broken-down vehicle blocking the road into a village - international traders had to find a work-around. Some owners ordered their vessels round the Cape. Others waited in line, a queue that at one point reached 200 vessels. Many (me included) had - in our ignorance - not even realised that the Suez Canal was a single lane, and that the flows in the canal rely on a lake – Great Bitter Lake – as a holding area midway so the direction of travel between Port Said on the Med and Suez in the south can reverse. How vulnerable our fragile world logistics suddenly seemed. The ‘Ever Given’ is one of the largest container ships in the world, 400 metres long, 59 metres wide, 220,000 mt gross/200,000 metric tons net, carrying about 18,000 boxes (out of a capacity of 20,0000) with between $1.5 and $3bln dollars' worth of cargo aboard, trapped for 6 days before a merciful high tide lifted the vessel and it was towed to 'Great Bitter Lake'.

A lot of trading folk on both sides of the world were inconvenienced. The Egyptians used the matter to make a ransom demand of US$ 900 mln for the vessel’s release. When paid, the amount was not made public. Meantime, the vessel made its way to Rotterdam, then Felixstowe, and was finally towed to Valetta for service and repair.

And that, I suppose, should have been that…Except that it wasn’t.

And that's because amongst those 18,000 containers it is likely that a certain percentage will have contained migrants. The migrants that none of us dare think too deeply about because it is a subject so intractable, so inconvenient, so heart-breaking, and so mortifying. Where in those 18,000 welded steel caskets they resided, no one knows. To reach a human at the bottom of a Chilean mine, drilling towards them after a cave-in mining disaster, would be easier than freeing a single container trapped within that Rubik cube of sheet metal.

The average sailing time for the 12,000 nautical miles from Shanghai to Rotterdam is about 30 days, which is the amount of food and drink any migrants will have been provided with. It will have run out long, long before a single container was discharged.

When, or if, we think about what motivates migration and how bad things must be to climb into a dark, cold container, before the metal door clangs shut and seals are affixed, we would do well to think of the ‘Ever Given’, and the neat sarcophagus it became for those buried alive somewhere in those stacks. Those migrants on the ‘Ever Given’ indeed gave - with their lives.

Perishable goods.

by Anthony Lipmann 13.08.21

(A version of this article was published by The Oldie)