The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Suez Canal pilots come under scrutiny after grounding of ship

An international effort helped free the giant cargo carrier, Ever Given, on March 29 after the vessel ran aground and blocked the Suez Canal five days earlier. (Video: The Washington Post)

ISMAILIA, Egypt — With the Ever Given freed and on the move, the spotlight is now likely to turn to the investigation of how the vessel got wedged into the Suez Canal, leading to billions of dollars in losses globally.

While strong winds during a dust storm are widely seen as a major factor, Lt. Gen. Osama Rabie of the Suez Canal Authority told reporters that the investigation will not focus just on the weather and that human and technical errors cannot be ruled out.

Investigators are likely to examine the performance of the two Egyptian canal pilots aboard the Ever Given and their relationship with the ship’s captain.

Were there any communications problems? How experienced were the pilots and the captain in navigating the canal? And what challenges did they face in moving a ship of such massive size — as big as the Empire State Building and near the maximum size allowed in the canal — along a single-lane artery of the waterway?

Ship stuck in Suez Canal: What you need to know

A high-ranking canal pilot working for the Suez Canal Authority said the two pilots aboard the Ever Given were both senior chief pilots with 30-plus years of experience. “They had the experience and qualifications to guide this ship,” he said.

The senior pilot said the job of navigating ships through canals had become more taxing in recent years. The vessels today are much larger and carry more cargo than those traversing the canal in the 1990s. Back then, he recalled, an oil tanker had blocked the canal and a single tugboat towed the vessel and cleared the waterway.

“The ships today are bigger than they used to be,” the pilot said. “This is something new. We haven’t seen this before.”

Strong winds, he said, could have easily propelled the Ever Given toward the bank, leaving the canal blocked. “This is something that happens to massive ships of this kind,” said the senior pilot, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment to the media. “They can run aground when winds exceed 30 or 40 knots.”

How did a ship get stuck in the Suez Canal?

He noted that canal pilots have guided the Ever Given through the canal before. “The ship has crossed the Suez Canal previous times but never under such weather conditions,” he said.

Contrary to their titles, the pilots do not actually steer the vessel in the Suez Canal. The pilot serves more as a consultant, using his experience and practical knowledge of the canal to give advice, for instance on how to maneuver the vessel or what course to steer.

The captain has to be present at all times on the bridge and give the orders to the helm, to the engines and tugs, taking into account the pilot’s directions, according to international maritime law. The captain has to keep the pilot informed of any problems with the handling of the vessel “so that the pilot might be in a position to give better advice to control the navigation and movement of the vessel,” the law reads. Ultimately, “the responsibility falls completely” on the captain, it adds.

“The captain has the sole responsibility for directing the ship,” the senior pilot said. “The pilots can offer their guidance and opinions, but the captain can choose to refuse it.”

Among some seafarers, the role of the pilots can be somewhat mysterious.

Rose George, author of “Deep Sea and Foreign Going,” a book that recounts a five-week journey aboard a container ship from Britain to Singapore, said that when she traveled through the canal in 2010, it was unclear what the Suez crew’s purpose was.

“We had a Suez crew on board, which is obligatory,” she said on “BBC News Hour” on Sunday. “You pay a fortune to go through the Suez Canal, about a $100,000 to $300,000, but you have to take on a Suez pilot.”

“The canal authority says you have to take this crew on board,” George said. “You have to take a special electrician who has to operate what they call a Suez Canal projector, which is a massive headlamp that you stick on the forecastle at the front of the ship on the bow, and that’s in case anything happens. And then there’s also a few other crew who apparently have special rope skills.”

She said the captain on the medium-size container ship she was on had been at sea for 42 years, having crossed the canal more times than he could remember. He said he had “never seen this crew do anything except sit in their special crew cabin,” George recounted.

Gregory Tylawsky, a captain with the California-based Maritime Expert Group, said that it was too early to say what caused the Ever Given’s grounding, but he offered, “There is no evidence at this time to indicate responsibility attached to any individuals, including the Suez Canal pilots on board the Ever Given at the time of the incident.”

Even if pilot error is found to have contributed to the accident, Egyptian law makes clear that pilots are not liable for any damage during their watch of the ship.

In an explanatory video posted Monday, Mark Phillip Laurilla, the chief engineer of a container ship who blogs about his experiences under the name Chief MAKOi, acknowledged that may seem unfair but said it is the same all over the world. “Whatever the case, all liabilities point towards the vessel, which means the ship owners along with their insurers are in for quite a ride,” Laurilla said.

Tylawsky said he was confident the industry would quickly learn from the incident. He noted that ships were required to have doubled hulls after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. Just on Saturday, he said, a ship in Istanbul suffered a 230-foot gash in a docking incident.

“In ships of older design, the location of this rupture would be in alignment with the ships’ fuel tanks, thus creating an oil spill,” Tylawsky said. “This is just one of many examples in our industry.”


An earlier version of this post incorrectly rendered the word "forecastle" as "foxhole" in a quote.