Stuck In the Suez: A Normal Accident

Normal you say? What’s so normal about this? It’s never happened before. It all harks back to Charles Perrow’s Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies. A normal (system) accident involves complexity and tight coupling that sometimes results from unforeseen system interactions. In this case, a relatively narrow canal accommodating heavy traffic and a ship about a thousand feet long weighing 200,000 tons likely aided with modern, computerized, navigational equipment in a high-wind environment. Taken together, these create a highly complex system.

Tight coupling means that if any one thing goes wrong within that system the result is a catastrophic failure. This is illustrated with the loss of the S.S. Transhuron in the Arabian Sea in 1974:

When the Transhuron was reconditioned, air conditioning was installed. It was put on a level that was directly under the propulsion switchboard. This occasioned no comment from the Coast Guard inspector [who could not have foreseen a catastrophe], because while piping should not be “in the vicinity” of the switchboard, this piping was separated by a steel floor from the switchboard, and ran to a nearby condenser.

After installation, engineers found that they needed a by-pass valve installed so that they could use the cold water system when the cooling pump needed repair. An iron nipple was installed on the bronze condenser head to hold a gauge, and the dissimilarity in metals slowly created corrosion [this is a long-known problem to avoid]. Unfortunately, when the unit was cleaned a few years later, this obscure addition was neglected. At sea, it failed and sprayed water into the propulsion switchboard 6 feet above it through an opening in the deck through which cables from the switchboard passed, and that shorted the switchboard out. Since the system had, at this point, 2,300 volts and 1,000 amperes, it was a big short, and it started a large fire. The crew failed to disengage another system on the panel, and that system also failed. (Perrow, pp. 224-225)

After some failed efforts the fire was extinguished. However, as a result of a poorly designed land-based marine radio communication system and miscommunication with the ship’s home office in New York, the ship languished in rough seas for several days and suffered structural damage as a result (the ship was lost, though everyone was rescued). All this was the result of a series of cascading events in a tightly coupled system, any one of which would  not be  catastrophic.

Returning to the Ever-Given, stuck as of this writing in the Suez Canal, let’s consider the high winds reported at the time of the accident. Okay, so now I’m going out on a limb and speculate

© Provided by Live Science An Airbus-built Pleiades Earth-observation satellite captured this view of the Ever Given container ship stuck in the Suez Canal on March 25, 2021.

what might have caused the ship to pivot, run aground, and block the canal. If the ship was battling a cross-wind then it would have had to turn slightly into the wind and/or reduce power to its upwind propeller and maintain or increase power to its downwind propeller to prevent the ship from drifting downwind. The stronger the crosswind, the greater these corrections would have to be. But what if the wind suddenly shifted more to the ship’s upwind rear flank or dropped off? This could have caused the ship to pivot, sending the ship towards the upwind side. While captains and helmsmen are certainly aware of handling ships in high wind conditions, that this type of accident has never happened within the canal would probably have been seen as highly unlikely.

Could these winds have been higher than previously experienced outside of storm conditions? If so, would these winds have been the result of climate change? In this case, we can’t know. But it might portend a new threat in the age of climate change. An analysis of this accident will reveal the likely cause(s) sometime in the future. We’ll have to wait and see.





2 thoughts on “Stuck In the Suez: A Normal Accident

  1. Debbie Jordan 03/26/2021 / 10:41

    Really interesting analysis / speculation – thanks!


    • Stephen Fielding Images 03/26/2021 / 13:17

      The alternative explanation would be the pilot house crew was fatigued, under the influence, or both.


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