To err is human. But that’s no excuse for shutting down the Suez Canal
Panama’s flag state investigation into the Ever Given grounding points a finger at two pilots. They may deserve it, but a lot more needs to be said
If the industry is to have confidence in the Suez Canal Authority’s pilotage service, extensive retraining and assessment of English proficiency may be required
TO ERR is human; to forgive, divine, as Augustan poet Alexander Pope reminded us over three centuries ago. But to shut the Suez Canal for six days will have taxed the mercy of shipping’s operative divinity, which for practical purposes is of course Mammon.
The master and the canal’s vessel traffic management centre are not exonerated.
The sheer size of Ever Given could have been a factor. At 400 m length overall, and with a full stack of boxes on deck around 50 m high, the risk was inevitably higher than it would have been for a smaller ship.
A high windspeed and reduced visibility in consequence of a sudden sandstorm did not help either.
But it is the actions of local Egyptian pilots that are singled out for attack.
On the report’s telling, the pilots failed to seek advice from the master, who would naturally have been more familiar with the ship’s manoeuvring characteristics than they were.
As a result, they issued the bridge with a series of confusing and sometimes contradictory orders.
Problems were exacerbated when they conducted an argument in Arabic, leaving the Indian national bridge team unable to interpret their concerns in timely fashion.
The findings of this probe into the most high-profile casualty of the century to date are worth comment in several aspects. Let us also consider the causes of the causes.
We will begin by trusting the report’s objectivity. Shunting the blame on workers a long way down the food chain is a tried and tested expedient of the powers that be.
But if the facts are as stated, there are direct questions about the professionalism of the pilots involved, and what if any sanctions they should face.
A London tribunal earlier this year held that a single pilot error — or even more than one error — does not meet the legal threshold for deeming a pilot incompetent.
Egyptian employment law may be less lenient. But at the very least, the pilots concerned should politely be required to attend a refresher course.
Moreover, the lessons learned from Ever Given should be generalised for future transits. For shipowners to have confidence in the Suez Canal Authority’s pilotage provision, its entire cadre of pilots may need retraining.
Psychological studies highlight a natural tendency for people to revert to their native tongue in times of panic. Arabic no doubt possesses as rich a vocabulary of expletives as any other language.
But shipping works in English. That proviso must be rigorously upheld, even when a 20,000 teu containership is veering dangerously out of control.
Then there is the investigation itself. As Lloyd’s List has consistently chided, while flag states have a duty to publish reports into serious incidents, they fail in around 40% of such cases.
Even when they do deliver, what they deliver often does not meet basic reporting standards.
Credit, then, to Panama for living up to its obligation. But such was the volume of media attention devoted to the Ever Given incident that it was never going to get away with memory holing this one.
An adequate investigation cannot be conducted overnight. Nevertheless, if the causes were as stated, what happened does not seem unduly complex.
Taking two years to land the findings in the industry’s collective inbox leaves Panama open to accusations of lack of alacrity.
Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 crashed in March 2019, killing all 157 on board and raising questions as to the airworthiness of the Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft.
A preliminary report was ready the very next month, and an interim report within a year.
In fairness, the final report took until December 2022. But the broad comparison is not favourable.
The industry as a whole will just have to accept that there are limits to the dimension of ships that can make a successful passage of this key international waterway. And the Suez Canal Authority could probably do with commissioning some more tugs.
Finally, those watching events as they unfolded may recall that initial rumours suggested engine trouble as a cause of the casualty.
The report firmly scotches that suggestion, explicitly stating that no technical issues were in play. The moral here is to discount initial rumours, especially when the narrative obviously suits one of the parties involved.
Resist any temptation to play the game of ‘punch the pilot’. Overwhelmingly, these upstanding professionals are experienced former seafarers with a detailed knowledge of local hazards, that render them indispensable in many navigation situations.
But, human error will remain with us until humanity can blame everything on an artificial intelligence error. As Pope recognised as long ago as 1711, we all make mistakes.