Suez Canal Debacle: Cargo ship is free but effects on trade will linger

For the first time in a week, container ships and tankers once again passed through the most vital commercial waterway on the planet, after an armada of tugboats, dredgers and at least one lonely excavator labored to free a 200,000-ton mega containership wedged lengthwise across the Suez Canal.

"They did a masterful job of getting it out," said maritime lawyer James Mercante, the president of New York State's Board of Commissioners of Pilots. 

Mercante, and many others familiar with vessel groundings, expected the Ever Given might sit there, stuck, clogging the canal for weeks, perhaps even requiring dismantling to unblock the passage.

"The containers you see on deck are just the ones you see on deck," Mercante said. "There's as many containers below deck."

And now the contents of not only the more than 18,000 containers on the Ever Given but also the millions more containers on the 350-plus other vessels stuck waiting to enter the canal behind the Ever Given must find their ways to their final destinations.

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"The tentacles [of this] are going to be tremendous," Mercante said. "These containers: Some of them are on the last leg of their voyage and some of them are on their first leg."

Some containers might already have missed or might soon miss connections in future ports.

"They're going to get to the next port and they're all going to have to wait there," Mercante said of all the backlogged ships.

Other containers might not arrive in time for holiday deadlines.

"Those cargos now are worthless," Mercante said.

And worthless cargos in this instance mean lawsuits, lots of them, piling onto a towering stack of maritime, business-interruption, salvage, canal and any number of other claims Mercante expects to take years to resolve.

"We're talking somewhere in the billions with a 'B' [of dollars]," Mercante said.

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But while shipping companies, salvage companies, operators, pilots, buyers, sellers, manufacturers and others prepare to fight for billions of dollars in damages in court, consumers should expect to see months of possible price hikes and shortages of any number of goods, 90% of which travel by ship at some point in their journeys to our homes.

"Whether it's oil, whether it's coffee beans, whether it's clothes, whether it's Mercedes-Benz," Mercante said.

At least the Ever Given, at more than three football fields long, is finally free. And the canal, an artery for maritime commerce responsible for 10% of global trade, apparently still works.

"One giant leap for the ship," Mercante said, "and one small step for the aftermath."