Captain Ken #4 - Suez Canal blockage

Captain Ken Owen had a long career at sea which included sailing as master with Overseas Containers Limited (OCL), P&O Containers and P&O Nedlloyd. Ken is now retired and in 2020 he started writing a monthly article for publication using the pen name 'Captain Ken' in the Mellor Church Outlook magazine.

A number of articles that Ken has written are about his time at sea with the company and he has very kindly agreed that we can share them here.

In Ken's fourth article that we are republishing here, he talks about the recent blockage of the Suez Canal by the container vessel Ever Given before recalling a voyage on the (then) OCL Cardigan Bay also grounded during transit. This article was first published in Ken's church magazine in May 2021.

CAPTAIN KEN

Suez Canal blocked

The grounding of the mega sized container ship Ever Given, briefly closing the Suez Canal, swiftly disappeared from the headline news once she was under way again.

Although the accident was colossal, I confess to feeling some satisfaction, that, due to the worldwide news coverage, people became aware of the importance of the continuous stream of large container ships, which is the basis of world trade as we know it.

As I write, the ship is still being held by the Suez Canal authorities, until a very large payment for expected costs is received from the owners.

And what is quite unusual is that the ship’s insurers have declared a state of General Average, which stems from an ancient maritime agreement that requires that all the parties that have cargo on the ship must pay towards the costs involved.

Who was to blame?

The Canal authorities blame the ship’s captain for the grounding, even though they supplied two pilots to conduct the Canal passage.

My sympathy is with the captain, as I know the German management company concerned is of the highest quality, and their staff likely to be the same. These extremely large ships are very difficult to control when affected by very strong winds, such as occurred on this occasion. I have transited the Suez Canal a great many times, and know how frightening a sand storm can be, while you are steaming through.

It happened to me!

In 1978 when the Suez Canal was re-opened after a long closure following the Israeli war, I was Chief Officer on the large container ship Cardigan Bay owned by Overseas Containers Limited, a ship with the exact same dimensions as the QE2.

The Suez Canal authority claimed that they had now dredged the canal depth to 41 feet, and thus we would be safe to go through with a draft of 38 feet. Our Captain (a most brilliant Cornishman) told the Fleet management that he didn’t think the canal was yet suitable for a ship of our size. However, as the saving in cost, to the Company, by using the canal rather than going round the Cape, was 23 million pounds, the decision was made.

South bound, in the channel, almost exactly where the Ever Given later came to grief, we grounded. We had ripped a huge 150- foot gash in the ship’s bottom and taken a 15 degree list. All the convoy behind us had to stop, and the Canal authorities were in a panic.

Fortunately, by pumping water between ballast water tanks, we were able to right the ship and reach the Red Sea, where we anchored to inspect the damage. As we suspected, we had struck a rock, which was supposed to have been dredged.

I well remember that, just as the divers began to inspect the bottom of the ship, a large school of sharks appeared. I was desperately worried, but impressed with the divers, who simply flattened themselves against the ship’s hull when a shark came too close.

We were able to hire a floating crane to shift enough containers to open the hatch lid and then reposition enough containers to make a cement box over the damaged area, to stop the sea coming into the hold.

Our return refused

We then requested permission to go back through the Canal to return to Hamburg, where the ship had been built, for permanent repairs. This was refused, as the Authorities now realised they hadn’t dredged the canal as deep as they had claimed.

Fortunately, Mitsubishi ship yard in Kobe, Japan, offered a solution, and we continued our voyage east-bound at reduced speed, calling at Port Kelang, Singapore, and Hong Kong, to deliver all our containers, on the way.

We dry-docked in Kobe, where a complete double bottom section for the dam aged hatch was lowered into place by a giant crane, and the ship continued very successfully in service for many years.


(This article was first published in the May 2021 edition of the Mellor Church Outlook Magazine.