The accident of the large container freighter “Ever Given” (IMO 9811000) on March 23, 2021 in the Suez Canal will keep the global shipping industry busy for years to come. Many questions remain unanswered: Could an accident like this have happened in northern Germany, for example on the Elbe at the gates of the port of Hamburg? Or: What should be done to quickly remove a blockage? Hans von Wecheln, maritime consultant from Husum, shared his ideas with THB (Täglicher Hafenbericht) and FleetMon. We publish the letter with the kind approval of the THB chief editor.
Letter to the editor from Hans von Wecheln, Husum / North Friesland
“The cause of the Ever Given accident, which led to the Suez Canal being closed for over six days with consequential damage worth billions, has not yet been clarified. Nonetheless, we have to discuss how large freighters like the Ever Given can be protected from accidents when they travel through narrow waters before an accident.
In addition to failures of drive technology or rudder failures, physical effects can cause potential accidents. Possible scenario:
If ships pass narrow fairways, such as canals or river bottlenecks, dangerous current effects can occur. If the ship is too close to a bank or another ship, the “banking effect” takes effect. The rapidly flowing water creates suction and thus impairs the maneuverability of the ship.
The most effective help with such suction effects, rudder, or engine failures is suitable steering tugs at the stern, which then accompany endangered ships through narrow fairways. This security measure has proven itself worldwide. These so-called ‘escort tugs’ steer or stop the ship in the event of danger and thus keep it in a secure channel.
The following shipping traffic could also be better secured and thus protected in such cases.
As early as the 1970s, oil tankers were escorted by tugs in the USA. Norway followed suit after an accident involving a gas tanker.
Not to forget the accident of the large tanker ‘Exxon Valdez’ (213,855 dwt) off Alaska on March 24, 1989, as a result of which there was a severe oil and environmental disaster that could have been prevented if escort tugs would have been in place.
The latest incident in the Suez Canal with the mega-carrier ‘Ever Given’ calls for a review of the safety concepts for the important European shipping areas and adjacent waters. Actions must be taken before an accident has happened.
I am convinced that the use of escort tugs on the Elbe, the central access route to Germany’s largest universal port, offers three main advantages:
Advantages of Escort Tugs
- From a specific position onwards, a towing connection is established at the stern with an escort tug designed or retrofitted for this purpose. This should support the control effect at ‘low speed’. This additional safety measure could shorten the distances to the next large ship. Thus, instead of two, three ships could be handled in the seaport within one tide.
- In the event of technical failures onboard a large freighter, the ship’s ability to steer remains intact.
- By stopping the distressed vessel, subsequent large carriers, which are also connected to an escort tug, could be held back or anchored until there was enough water under the keel again. The escort tug keeps the freighter safely in the fairway.
The operation of escort tugs requires a high level of attention from all crew members and total commitment on the bridge.
After a journey of eight hours, there needs to be a swap. Means: A second (new) tug is replacing its predecessor escort. The first tug can take a rest period then or a third crew will go on board. This in turn has the advantage that there is a second tug available for any use.
In short: As a rule, three tugs should be provided for escorting and two more for swapping.
For the port of Hamburg, Europe’s number three seaport, with four to five escort tugs, three large freighters could be safely (!) escorted during a single tide at the same time. “
Gain more insights on how the blockage of the Suez Canal highlighted the fragility of the global supply chain by reading our article.