It is sometimes good to remind ourselves that we do not know everything, and the assumptions that we make are not only misguided but completely wrong. We know so little, still so very little, about how the world around us works that the stronger someone asserts their case, whether it is on the markets, or climate change, or even how long it takes to cook a particular fish perfectly the wronger they may turn out to be. This necessary lack of knowledge combined with human nature are the root causes of both hubris and nemesis. But we still believe that our generation on this far edge of the curve of history knows so much more, and therefore nearly everything. The past, and the things we did in the past, either through lack of insight, or technology, or manpower, or wisdom were wrong. Spoiler alert: every new generation thinks the same.

 

And so, I learn with interest that we may have to rewrite our understanding of how the universe is put together. The standard model of particle physics describes the particles and forces that make up all known matter, but it turns out that we, well when I say we, I mean physicists, may have to rethink the whole thing.

 

What has happened? Well down near Geneva there is the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) which CERN (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research) constructed to research the behaviour of proton beams when they collide and test the theories of particle physics. The most famous finding so far has been the discovery of the Higgs boson particle, for which Peter Higgs and François Englert were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2013. They theorised that the particle existed, the LHC proved it. But work has not stopped there, indeed it would be a bit of a waste of a precision built circular tunnel 26.7 kilometres in circumference buried underneath the border between France and Switzerland to not use it any further.

 

One of the four main teams at the LHC, after analysing ten years’ worth of data, have found something unexpected: that the rate of decay of B muons into electrons and muons is not the same. This probably means nothing to you, and it is indeed mind-boggling to me, but very simply put it means that something is happening that shouldn’t, and this could change what physicists previously thought. Are they dismayed? Are they disappointed? Are they looking for someone to blame? Not a bit of it.

 

“If it turns out, with extra analysis of additional processes, that we were able to confirm this, it would be extremely exciting. It would mean there is something wrong with the standard model and that we require something extra in our fundamental theory of particle physics to explain how this would happen.”

 

So says Professor Chris Parkes of the University of Manchester and spokesperson of the team responsible at the LHC. Others agree.

 

Compare this positive attitude with media frenzy surrounding the container ship Ever Given currently blocking the Suez Canal. I will not touch on the speculation on the implications of the incident, either to the freight markets, the supply chain disruption, the price of oil or the price of Samsung televisions. As we do not yet know how long the ship will be stuck or, perhaps more significantly, how long people think the ship will be stuck, it remains speculation.

 

Of course the blame game is in full swing, with flag states disagreeing with owners, and everyone else having an opinion. I do not wish to add to this; at the end of the day it is out of our hands, and in shipping we can only deal with the effects to the markets as they happen, and prepare ourselves accordingly. Here’s a hint however: a prolonged blockage of the Suez Canal will increase tonne-mile demand, which is generally a good thing for shipowners open for employment.

 

Leaving all that aside, what I did find interesting was an article in the Financial Times which is by far the most intelligent suggestion as to why this accident happened. Their very well researched and thought-out theory is that it was not a gust of wind that caused the vessel to ground, but a momentary lack of wind, combined with the bank effect.

 

For once with shipping, the bank effect is nothing to with money, but a hydrodynamic phenomenon that occurs when ship passes close to a bank. The reduced space between the hull of the vessel and the speed of the displacement increases, causing the water pressure to drop, which leads the bow to be pushed away but leaves the stern in the same place as the vessel moves forward. This causes the vessel to go into a spin. As the FT succinctly puts it:

 

The ship is moving north, with westerly winds — they are coming from the ship’s left, pushing it to the right. To compensate, the ship has adjusted its heading to the left, into the wind, to make sure the combination of screw and wind continue to push it at the correct bearing, towards the Mediterranean…. Then… the ship lurches left, into the wind. Lataire [Evert Lataire, head of the Maritime Technology Division at Ghent University] thinks there might have been not a gust, but a temporary lull, meaning the Ever Given was overadjusted to its left, moved to the left, and its beamy hull began to hug the windward bank. Then everything happens quickly, in a way that looks a lot like the bank effect. Bow shoots away from the bank. Stern continues to hug the bank and move north. Ship spins. Bow bulb punches through the riprap. Trade comes to a halt.

 

The riprap is a line of boulders that protect the banks of sand and mud from erosion. Photos of a tiny digger trying to dig the vessel out of the sand are therefore misleading. Ever Given, the ship that can’t help but give, is sitting athwartships on a submerged breakwater. Sucking sand away around the bow will make a marginal difference when it is the riprap that will probably have to be dismantled to free the vessel, hence the extended estimate to free the vessel.

 

The reason why this hasn’t happened before is that the ships traversing the Suez Canal were not as big. To remind those of you that haven’t had this banged into their heads in my Maritime Geography lessons, the Suez Canal’s restriction is depth. The new largest containerships are shallow enough, but they are now much wider. To summarise:

 

  • Large ships are restricted in length because over 400m the longitudinal pressures from ocean waves will cause the vessel to crack or in the worse case scenarios split in two
  • If ships cannot get bigger by length then they have to go wide. Ever Giant is 400m long, but also has a 60m beam, with a fairly modest 16m draft
  • Ships are basically rectangular in shape. Ever Giant moves through the water displacing almost 300,000 cbm of seawater as she goes
  • This movement through water (and the speed of the movement) is what causes the waves to hit the beach when a ship passes by
  • In the oceans, this does not matter, as there is more than enough space to absorb this displacement and change in water pressure
  • However in restricted waters there is nowhere for the water to go, and this is when the bank effect occurs

 

If this theory is correct – and I suspect it is – the ships have got too big, too wide, too beamy to pass through the Suez Canal safely. They will have to either change the speed (increasing transit time), make the canal even wider, or reduce the size of the ships that use the canal. If this is the case, then the penny hasn’t quite dropped yet for the implications of trade. It would be better for those wanting to maintain the status quo to blame engine failure, or human error rather than admit that the ships are simply too big to pass the canal.

 

If this had happened to a laden suezmax, or very large cruise ship, then be sure that the media response would be different. As it is it looks like no-one was hurt, and there is no pollution, and the only bad thing is that a load of ships (and their ever-trapped crews) will have to wait around for a while, or take the long way round, it is one of those events where everyone has an opinion, and then becomes a template for memes about unrelated stuff on social media. The increase in freight rates (if it happens) will not affect the final consumer very much, and a few articles will be written about the vulnerability of supply chains, and how our globalised economy is under threat, how we should re-shore, and so on. And then they will disappear.

 

But the implications should be clear to those of us in shipping.

 

We have probably now seen the limit of container ships, and the sizes will now eventually readjust downwards until the economies of scale work themselves out, just as it was with ULCCs.

 

Of course, it is logical to increase the sizes of ships to try and get the cost per unit, whether tonne or TEU, down as far as it can go.  But ships cannot increase in size indefinitely, as the FT says:

 

The ships keep getting bigger. But everything on Earth stays the same size.

 

I find this quite comforting as it happens. If every new generation thinks that they know something more of value than the previous one, and that their confidence in their knowledge comes up short against the limits of reality, is that such a bad thing? Just because our assumptions have been proved wrong does not mean failure, but could be a source of excitement and innovation for us. And surely I am not alone to be somewhat relieved in discovering, finally, that size is not everything after all.

 

Simon Ward