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Episode 45 - Stuck in the Suez Canal

April 03, 2021 Christine Malec and JJ Hunt Season 2 Episode 45
Talk Description to Me
Episode 45 - Stuck in the Suez Canal
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Talk Description to Me
Episode 45 - Stuck in the Suez Canal
Apr 03, 2021 Season 2 Episode 45
Christine Malec and JJ Hunt

Last week, the world stopped and gaped when a container ship the size of a skyscraper got stuck in the Suez Canal. Using descriptions of satellite images, news footage, and even memes, Christine and JJ tell the story of what happened, why it mattered, what was done about it, and how social media (as usual) found ways to poke fun.


Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/TalkDescriptionToMe)

Show Notes Transcript

Last week, the world stopped and gaped when a container ship the size of a skyscraper got stuck in the Suez Canal. Using descriptions of satellite images, news footage, and even memes, Christine and JJ tell the story of what happened, why it mattered, what was done about it, and how social media (as usual) found ways to poke fun.


Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/TalkDescriptionToMe)

JJ Hunt:

Talk description to me with Christine Malec and JJ Hunt.

Christine Malec:

Hi, I'm Christine Malec.

JJ Hunt:

And I'm JJ Hunt. This is talk description to Me where the visuals of current events and the world around us get hashtag in description rich conversations.

Christine Malec:

Global shipping is something that we don't tend to think about until the little comforts that we want aren't available. And until the last week, when many of us were following the plight of the cargo ship ever given that got stuck in the Suez Canal. And we thought we would break some of those images down today, because it's also fascinating and sort of, under the radar in in a in a popular sense, we don't tend to think about the infrastructure that goes on, that gets us all of our comforts and our material things that we that we're also accustomed to. And so I think that in order to have a good context for this, we kind of want to start with the geography. So JJ, can you describe sort of what's going on around the Suez Canal and why the canal was such a game changer for for shipping, totally.

JJ Hunt:

So I called up some satellite images, some Google Maps images of the Suez Canal, which is in Egypt, it's a narrow channel running less than 200 kilometers north to south, and it connects the Red Sea in the south, to the Mediterranean Sea in the north. So essentially, it connects Asia to Europe. And vice versa. In satellite images, this part of Egypt is sandy desert in the south and it becomes like greener farmland near the North. If you zoom in a bit, you can actually use the patchwork of farm fields is evident in the in this northern part of Egypt. This is the Nile Delta right at the south end of this part of Egypt, where the canal is cut, you can see this single blue channel of water that cuts north and there's a real perfection to this channel of water, there's a uniformity that marks it as human made. It's straight. It's got seemingly perfect banks, especially when you're, you know, when your vantage point is at a satellite distance the banks have this canal looked very perfect, and the shoreline looks like sand. But I believe the actual shoreline is sand and packed rock in this southern section of the canal. And then about a third of the way along from south to north, the canal enters great bitter lake. It's, you know, just a pretty classic inland lake. And then it continues north. The canal continues North past a smaller Lake called Timpson Lake, and then continues North again, on its longest stretch toward port side in the Mediterranean. And there's a part of this stretch where the canal is actually doubled. So from overhead, you can see the split with there, where there's a sandbar, very thin sandbar that separates the two parallel channels. And this, of course, allows ships to travel in opposite directions and past one another. And so that is basically the canal as it cuts through this, this part of Northern Egypt linking the Red Sea to the Mediterranean.

Christine Malec:

Let's go to the Red Sea because I want to understand how this canal connects what to what. So if you were in the Red Sea, other than the Suez Canal, what are the naval routes out of the Red Sea or into the Red Sea? What does it connect you with?

JJ Hunt:

So the Red Sea is actually itself a fairly narrow body of water and it's cutting. It comes close to the south east coast of the African continent where it meets the Arabian Sea through the Gulf of Arden. So maybe it's it's easier to work from large to small here. So if you start with the Indian Ocean, the Indian Ocean which stretches from Australia to, to the east coast of the African continent, all the way up to India and Southeast Asia. That's the Indian Ocean. If you're going if you continue north through the Indian Ocean, on the west side of India, you come to the Arabian Sea. And then the Arabian Sea feeds into the Gulf of Arden. This is a dip of water. This is a waterway that passes between Yemen and Somalia, and then passes through a very narrow channel to become the Red Sea. And this red sea cuts inland between Saudi Arabia and in mainland Africa. And it cuts all the way kind of North West. Up, up, up until you reach what is the Suez the Gulf of the Suez the Gulf of Suez. And that is where you start to split Egypt. So now it's the Gulf of Suez cuts up north west, and you actually have Egypt, to the east, Egypt to the west, and it gets narrower or narrower, until at the northern tip of the Gulf of Suez, you get the manmade human made Suez Canal, which begins to cut in a straight perfect channel, north, up to the Mediterranean Sea, directly north of it.

Christine Malec:

All these pieces are falling into place. Okay, so if the Suez Canal was either not there, or blocked, as it was last week, ships would have to instead of if they were coming from Asia, instead of heading north into the Mediterranean, and then across the Atlantic to North America, or you know, stopping in Europe or across to North America, instead of doing that, if I'm correct, they would have to veer South way down around the southern tip of Africa and then back on if they wanted to get to Europe, they'd have to completely go around Africa back north, and then probably East a bit for Europe or west, across the Atlantic to North America. Is that right?

JJ Hunt:

You've got it exactly right. So if you are traveling from Asia, Southeast Asia, India, anywhere in, in Asia, by boat, you would cross the Arabian Sea, though, up the Gulf of Arden, up the Red Sea, and then you can cut this very small 200 kilometer length of the Suez Canal, and end up in the Mediterranean Sea, and directly north is Turkey, then you've got Greece and Italy. So you're right. In Europe, it's it's relatively quick. Without that route, you have to go all the way across the Indian Ocean, you have to go south, down the east coast of Africa, hook around the horn. So that's right around South Africa, come all the way up the coast, along the west coast of Africa. And then if you're going into Europe, you have to then go curve all the way back around past between Morocco, and Spain, and get into the Mediterranean to the two ports in Italy, Greece, and so forth. If you're going to Europe, it's a massive way all the way around. If you can cut that little 200, you know, 200 kilometer stretch of land in Egypt, you can eliminate a massive amount of travel, which of course is a mass amount of fuel burned in you're there in a fraction of the time. So that's, that's why this strip of land, this canal that cuts this strip of land is so vital.

Christine Malec:

It's making me so twitchy to be on a boat. So the cargo ships, I'm pretty sure that I don't have a sense of any kind of sense of scale of how big these actually are. So can you describe either cargo ships in general or or this ship in particular?

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, these container ships are, I mean, they're, just massive and the one that got stuck the ever given is one of the world's longest it's one of the world's biggest, it's 1300 feet long, and almost 200 feet wide. Those numbers are big enough that you really need something to compare it to right. The Empire State Building is 102 storeys tall, and it's 12 150 feet without the antenna and 187 feet wide. So it is entirely appropriate to imagine the Empire State Building on its side to conjure the scale of this ship. It's that big. It really is a skyscraper on its side, traveling through the oceans there. Massive and empty container ships are. They're kind of like giant elongated bathtubs, right, they're kind of empty. They're big, hollow, empty bathtubs. The only difference is that they've got the container ships have these cross walls that go from side to side. And these are for structural integrity, but they also help create perfect bays for shipping containers. And the walls, these cross walls have vertical rails on both sides, and they're positioned exactly 40 feet apart. So this creates a precise slot for a 40 foot shipping container, which is a standardized shipping container can be dropped in, so that the containers sit inside the belly of the ship, they run parallel to the ship, with their ends slotted between the rails on these cross walls.

Christine Malec:

Now, my understanding is that what happened is that there was a combination of high winds and the sheer height of the containers parked on top of each other made a sale effect total. And so it blew the ship sideways. So how tall was it when when it was fully loaded when it's fully loaded?

JJ Hunt:

So the Ever Given, you can stack something like eight containers high inside. So once you've filled up the inside of this bathtub, they use the same cranes that load the shipping containers in to actually build a roof deck. So what you end up with when you filled the you filled the ship, and then put the roof deck on, you end up with something that looks like a barge, there are no significant sides to speak of, there's no you know, they're very small railing. But at this scale, the railing is hardly even noticeable, and you have a flat top. And then what they do is they install vertical grids, which are basically the same as the cross walls that are inside. So then you have these, these slot slotted walls, these walls on top of this barge, and you slot more containers on top and some ship like the ever given can get eight containers high inside 10 containers high on top of the deck. And that's this wall right 10 containers high 22 or 23 containers wide. In total, these big ships can handle 20,000 containers. 20,000! They are massive. I'm really not kidding when I say it looks like the Empire State Building on its side, right. And aside from the pointed bow of the ship, they really look very boxy, very solid. So the containers are perfectly stacked. And that gives the ships straight sides and often a flat top. So the silhouette of one of these ships when it's fully loaded, kind of it appears monolithic. But the containers themselves are actually different colors. So like their blocks that make up this near cuboid. And the blocks are readily apparent because the the containers themselves tend to be in solid colors, Rusty reds, forest greens, white, orange, blue. And so on top of the of the ship, you've got this, what looks like almost like a 3d quilt like perfectly stacked colored kids blocks. And so if you're looking at it from the ends of the ship, either, you know the front of the back, you see squares, the ends of the containers, these squares, these perfect squares in a grid. And if you're looking at it from the sides, you see the length of these containers, these rectangular containers. So you see these, it's a grid of rectangles when viewed from the side. And they are massive and tall. So you're absolutely right when the wind hits they the ship had traveled into a dust storm with high winds. And when the wind hits it at the wrong angle, it's it's it's it's a flat surface, it's it's wind hitting the side of a building. And so you're in water, it's gonna push you at a line and that's exactly what seems to have happened here.

Christine Malec:

Is it hard to get a sense of scale when you're looking at the ship?

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, it's it doesn't make it's like we were talking about with the moon. It doesn't make any sense until you compare it to something else. And that's why some of the images of the ship being dug out are so fantastic because you do get a sense of scale when you compare it to either the tugboats or the pieces of dredging equipment or digging equipment that were used either in water and or on land. The scale becomes apparent and it's it's downright comical.

Christine Malec:

And so walk us through what does it look like when ship was was wedged in there and how was it removed.

JJ Hunt:

So on March 23, the ever given was traveling north right caught up in the Sandstorm and got wedged kind of like a toothpick cutting across a wind pipe. So I've got a satellite image-

Christine Malec:

Ow!

JJ Hunt:

I know what that's really what it looks like!

Christine Malec:

Thanks for that! Ha ha!

JJ Hunt:

So I got a satellite image here, it's an overhead image of this stuck ship. So on my screen is an image of the southern section of this canal where it got stuck. And it's the image is oriented so that the dark turquoise water of the canal is basically a perfect strip running more or less vertically up and down the middle of my screen. the shores of the canal look like sand from this distance, like I say, but like I believe at sand impact stone when you get into closer views. to our left, that's the West Bank to our right is the east bank. And on the West Bank, beyond the sandy shoreline, there's some green plots of land and some rooftops and whatnot. And on our right beyond the sandy shoreline is just more sand. There's nothing but sand on the right, and the ship the ever given from overhead. It is shaped like a long, thin bullet. And the bow the nose of the ship has clearly run aground on the right so it has dug into the east bank. And the stern the rear of the ship appears to have swung out and has almost made contact with the bank on the left the West Bank, it was stuck in the sandy shallows on the west side. But my understanding is that the ship itself didn't make contact with the shore. So the ship crosses the canal at about a 45 degree angle and blocks it entirely. There's no getting around it at all.

Christine Malec:

Yikes. Now, I know many strategies were thought of and tried. But what was the strategy that ultimately got it for you?

JJ Hunt:

Well they needed three. Apparently All three were they used and all three were required. So they had to remove sand from underneath the ends of the ship where it was stuck. They needed to remove sand from around the bow of the ship where it had wedged into the shoreline. And they needed to push and pull the ship back in line with the canal. So the first thing they did was they got a dredger in a dredger looks like a regular ship, but it has a totally open bow that is, like it's the bow is like a frame that appears to be made of steel girders. So it's completely open, and it's maybe the 1/6 of the size of the ever given. So it's a big ship, but only 1/6 of the size of the giant cargo ship that it's brought in to help save. And what it does is it plants itself quite close to the shore quite close to the to the ship, and it drops a vertical pole out of the stern that acts like an anchor and it allows it to pivot but remain rooted in place. And then out of the front. This open front of the of the dredger is a long, thick pipe and it shoots down underwater at about a 45 degree angle and the tip of it. According to the artists renderings that I've seen, the tip of this pipe has like a cutting head like it looks like a spinning fan blades and there's also a vacuum nozzle attached. And so what happens is it buries itself in the muck and sand and then the switches on these fan blades that chops up the muck and sand underwater and the vacuum sucks up the sand comes up the pipe through the pump in the middle of the ship and shoots out the back in a really long hosing. It's something like 500 feet long, and it shoots out the back of this 500 foot long hose to a safe dumping area. So that's the dredger it was dredging sand from underneath both the the bow and the stern. And then you've got the digging out of the bow. So these are the wildest images. So the okay the one of the important things to understand is the shape of the bow of a ship like this because it's it's unique. It's called a bulbous bow, it looks like a protruding chin. So imagine the bow of a ship in profile facing our right and this and we're able to see above and below the waterline. So above the waterline, the hole cuts back in under the bow right kind of like one side of a letter V. But under the waterline. The whole then curves and juts back out again with a bulb so it looks like this jutting chin in that extends out just about as far as the tip of the bow above the waterline and this shape. This very particular shape helps reduce wave resistance. So what happened when the ship came in and swung around the tip of it hits the shoreline 16 feet of the bulb got wedged into the sand on the short dug right in, like just straight in. And so what they had to do on top of getting the dredger to pull sand out from under the ship, they had to get excavators and bulldozers to drive in on the shore, in literally dig out this bulb, this Oh, yeah, this bow. And this is where it's absurd, because these diggers next to the ship, images of this really drive home the size of these massive, massive ships, so excavators are big, especially industrial excavators. These aren't the kind of excavators that would come and like, dig out your basement. These are massive industrial excavators. And, like, each one of them is the size of a bungalow, like literally the size of a small house. But in the photos, the machines are digging out the ship. If you're actually trying to take a picture of both an excavator and the ship, you can't possibly fit the height of the hole in the frame, not even close. Oh, they are so dwarfed. So there's there's a whole suite of images that feature excavators and machinery on the left parked at the edge of the water. And they've got their, their digging arms outstretched where you know, pulling back buckets of sand. And on the right side of the image, there's nothing but Hall. There's just the whole of the ship and it doesn't you can't even get it in it extends beyond the upper edge of the frame, right? massive. My favorite picture shows a bulldozer that's parked beside the stuck bow. And there are a few workers in neon green vests, they're tiny, tiny, tiny, but standing beside the bulldozer, you can see that they are the same height as the bulldozer tire. So these are like this bulldozer has six foot tires. So that gives you an idea of how big the bulldozer is. But the ship that's to the right is so massive the ever given is so huge. There's an anchor that is pulled up, but it is it's the kind of anchor that drops out of the side of the ship doesn't go over the railing it comes right out the side of the of the hall and it's pulled up and you can see that the anchor is the same size as the bulldozer. That's the scale we're talking about. So you're digging, you're dredging for the sand from from below. They're digging out the bow. And then the next thing you need are you need to move it you need to push it and pull it you need tugboats and so tugboats the classic tugboat is as low and squat, it's relatively wide and it's ringed with what looks like thick black rubber. And so that there are lots of images of tugboats pushing and pulling and towing the ever the ever given. I think they use something like 13 different tugboats in this operation he needed he had to throw everything at this thing, but that the images that I found most interesting were the ones where there are multiple tugboats lined up alongside the ship. So I generally picture in my mind tugboats pushing on bigger ships head on right like you knows right up against the hole. And then you know, they push with all your mind. That's how I imagined tugboats working, or maybe pulling with a winch and a tow line right. But one of the techniques they apparently used was stacking tugboats alongside the help the haul, parallel to the ship, because tugboat propellers underneath can rotate fully underwater, so they can actually turn their propellers underwater so that the ship can push sideways. And so I've got an image here of these two tugboats side by side parallel to the ship. And I imagine what they're doing is turning their propellers underwater so that they can push this thing sideways. It was just a different technique I hadn't seen that's not what I usually conjure, as as as a way of utilizing these tugboats in their, you know, incredibly powerful engines. Ultimately, what they what they did once they freed the rear they dredged out underneath the stern they dug out around the bow and they dredged out from under the bow then what they did was they had tugboats pushing on the rear side so that it would swing back toward the center of the canal. They had tugboats pulling on winches, the front so that it would be pulled back in line with the with the canal. And all of that was was you know, so there are 13 different tugboats all being used at the same time, maybe all at the same time. to push to push the back to pull the front end everything had already been dug out and that's how they had to do basically drag it back in line with the channel because at at the center of the channel it's of course much deeper and once you get there then they can tow it they could tow it straight up and what they did was they towed it out of the channel into that lake what is it the bitter bitter like yeah the great bitter like so they then dragged it to great bitter lake where it could be assessed to see if it was still seaworthy.

Christine Malec:

Now i'm sure some of the satellite images would have showed the backup of other ships can you say something about that. Clearly you've seen something

JJ Hunt:

Heh heh. Some of them are, again, they're absurd and they were building up over time so the first few ships that were backed up you saw some images being released by nasa and bumped around on online and and you have to zoom out even farther in order to get the scale where you're seeing part of the red sea and you're seeing part of the canal in the stuck ship so at this point the the ships are looking like grains of rice like that's the kind of scale that we're talking about here and what you see in the red sea is this orderly line of grains of rice starting to build up of ships waiting to go and then over as the days get longer the the line of grains of rice in the sea gets longer and longer and then curves back it bends around the line of ships bends back on itself oh okay and then it gets then there's just too many of them and they can't kind of keep up this exact line so then it gets a little bit scattered and the by the end there were 367 vessels stuck waiting some of the north end some of the south and the images look like now you've got an organized line of of grains of rice floating and waiting with these giant anchors holding them in place and then there's a scattering of other grains of rice that are clearly like they're just not in line anymore they're just there they're just waiting but apparently a cost of something like six to 10 billion us dollars a day i mean just incredible and they i mean they had to move 30,000 cubic meters of sand and 13 tugboats but apparently that one of the real kickers the reason they finally got it to move remember we talked about that supermoon in the last episode with the moon the tides were higher and that was one of the final things that helped them be able to move it was the was the full moon hot the super moon high tide helped get enough water under this thing they could refloat it and get it moving again.

Christine Malec:

Wow.

JJ Hunt:

Thank you super moon.

Christine Malec:

Thank you super moon. It's easy to just treat this like oh wow that's amazing what a laugh and to make light of it which we will do again in a moment but it's true it did general genuinely cause hardship and supply chain problems and yeah it's it's not a laughable situation at all.

JJ Hunt:

No, it was pretty serious are those involved yeah for sure

Christine Malec:

Absolutely. However, predictably, i understand that a sprout of memes has arisen from from this incident can we can we go over some of those

JJ Hunt:

Yeah some great memes so one meme which was using a photograph that was taken from one of the ships that was behind the ever given so there was a ship that was really close to it at one point and so it's from the top of this container ship so you can see over the bed of all the tops of the other container ships you can see the ever v ever given you know stuck in the canal and on top is godzilla and king kong fighting one another because of course the movies coming up so someone took the image from the poster of these two giant beasts on top of the ever ever given that's pretty good and then lots of different variations on the theme so images of these diggers beside the giant hall of the ship the scale of it was such that people did all kinds of things with you know like me working on my midterm exams and the you know the looming school year ahead whatever there's different versions of that but i've got one here that's got that image of the bulldozer pardon me the digger the excavator with the with its bucket outstretched and the giant ship just you know completely dominating the rest of the image and the giant ship is labeled the crushing despair from everything from the past year and then and then the excavator is labeled you doing your best yeah i saw i saw one that was it using one of the satellite images of the of the ship stuck in the canal, and the title was at least my mistakes can't be seen from space. It's pretty good. And there was a someone, that image of the bulldozer, whether the tires are the same size as the guys in their neon vests, someone set up a Twitter account called guy with the digger at the Suez Canal at Suez digger guy, and it uses that image as their profile picture. And the only the only caption in their profile is trying my best, no promises. I like that one. And then my favorite was a little video meme from Austin Powers. And there's a there's a clip in the I think it's the original Austin Powers movie where Austin Powers the, you know, international man of mystery. The Spy is in the Dr. evil's lair and he's traveling through the tunnels of this underground layer in like a basically a golf cart that, you know, he goes through the tunnels of this underground power plant a rocket launching, I can't remember what it is. And he gets in, he gets in a tunnel in a very narrow tunnel, and he decides he's going to make a three point turn to get his little golf cart out and he goes back and forth. Mike Myers so he takes like, they take a minute and a half or something ridiculous of just like him going back and forth. Trying to make a three point turn until someone took an image of the ever given and slapped it on top of that golf cart. So now you've got Austin Powers, man of mystery, trying to get this like giant container ship in this basement hallway. That's pretty good. I like that one.

Christine Malec:

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