Yesterday, with only a few minutes left in my weekly Zoom appointment with my therapist, I decided to derail the proceedings to ask her what I believed was an essential question. It had nothing to do with my fear of vulnerability or difficulty asking for help; in fact, it had nothing to do with me at all.
Had she seen the stuck boat?
The boat, of course, is the Ever Given, a massive container ship operated by the Taiwan-based shipping company Evergreen, which probably now wishes its name wasn’t painted on the boat’s sides in such enormous letters. On its way from China to Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, the boat accidentally Tokyo drifted to a stop in Egypt’s Suez Canal on Tuesday, where it has been stuck sideways ever since. Efforts to refloat the Ever Given so far have been futile; the heavy construction equipment and fleet of industrial-strength tugboats assigned to that job have been successful not at dislodging the ship’s bow from the canal’s sandy shore, but at demonstrating this big-ass boat’s stupendous girth in photos. The ship, which is longer than the Empire State Building is tall, looms over literally everything—construction equipment, palm trees, nearby buildings. The Ever Given is Manute Bol to the human world’s Muggsy Bogues.
My therapist had not seen the boat, even though photos of it had already begun to be manufactured into memes about life’s existential problems and the stupid little things we all do to feel some control over them. I asked her to Google it in front of me, because I had become obsessed. Since Tuesday afternoon, in fact, I have thought about little else. The first photos I saw of it were taken by workers on the Maersk Denver, the ship that was immediately behind the Ever Given when a wind storm is suspected to have blown her sideways. (Yes, the boats are girls.) I spent much of yesterday hunting down photos of the boat, both in situ and in happier times. I acquainted myself with websites like VesselFinder and MarineTraffic, as well as with the concept of Suezmax and the phrase bulbous bow, which the Ever Given has and which means that she is not just on top of the sand, but also lodged inside it.
I’m obsessed with the dang boat because people like me and you are not really supposed to be aware of what boats like her are up to. You’re not supposed to think about, or even notice, global freight, but the Ever Given has made cartoonishly noticeable some of the crucial infrastructure of global capital, which is usually invisible in most people’s daily life. She has done so with an absolutely sublime visual gag, improved by every new detail about the problems the ship is causing and every new photo of the impotent human measures being undertaken to fix them. Peruse the surrounding waterways on any of the internet’s maritime trackers, and you’ll find the beginnings of a far more significant problem: More than 150 other absolutely huge shipping vessels, transporting everything from live animals to crude oil, are waiting on either side; the barge ran aground at a point where the Suez has only one lane, which means that traffic is blocked in both directions.
Every time I add some new morsel to my stash of stuck-boat information, I’m reminded of those clips I used to love as a kid on America’s Funniest Home Videos, in which some guy gets nailed in the groin by his overly enthusiastic golden retriever. In this case, the guy is a complex web of financiers and shipping magnates and insurance companies, whom the sideways boat will cost approximately one zillion dollars. The Ever Given is standing athwart one of the most important shipping lanes in the world, yelling “Oops!” She is ruining everything, and at least for the moment, she cannot be (un)stopped.
Global shipping is an unglamorous business that has created some extremely glamorous fortunes, but mostly for people you’ve never heard of (unless you’re an art dealer). If you never, ever think about all the big-ass boats out there full of cheap clothes or baby strollers, the industry is working as designed. But a significant majority of your material possessions, including virtually everything you’ve ever bought from Amazon or Best Buy or Target or Walmart, was ferried most of the way from where it was manufactured to where you bought it on a ship similar to the one currently taking an extended smoke break in the Suez.
Containerization, the process that created a need for ships as incongruously huge as the Ever Given, is a relatively modern shipping process developed after World War II. It involves loading goods into big metal boxes the size of tractor-trailer beds and then loading those boxes onto boats in tall stacks that move among major global ports. Its proliferation has made moving large quantities of manufacturing components and consumer goods around the world more efficient and less costly—20 times less expensive by volume, according to one estimate, than traditional bulk shipping—which makes the things you buy less expensive. It also tempts corporations to shuffle their production facilities and the jobs that go along with them around the globe in search of lax labor laws, lower wages, and bigger margins.
When people have to think about that—and perhaps, as a result, feel connected to the high-stakes logistical ballet that is global manufacturing, or implicated in the often miserable working conditions of the faraway people who make it possible—something consumer psychologists call “friction” is introduced into the buying process. Retailers, manufacturers, and shippers alike benefit if purchase decisions feel unencumbered by anything but consumers’ personal desire, which means the origins of the things we buy are usually obscured.
You know what else creates friction? Sand. In the case of the Ever Given, it has created so much friction that trade between Europe and Asia has effectively paused, an oopsy so big that it is visible in satellite imagery. It could hardly have happened at a worse time—shipping has been a huge mess for a year because of the pandemic, with long waits to unload ships at some of the world’s biggest ports and goods awaiting slots in containers piled up on factory floors. Hundreds of thousands of ship workers have been stranded on various vessels for months because pandemic protocols in their home countries prevent them from being repatriated, layering a looming labor crisis on top of an ongoing logistical one. The Maersk Denver and her crew must now simply vibe in the canal until the Ever Given is successfully towed off the bank, which could take weeks, according to The New York Times. An “elite salvage squad” has been dispatched to yank it back into the water.
For people who don’t work in shipping, these problems have reared their heads over the past year in an endless and seemingly random series of consumer-goods shortages, affecting products as varied as sofas and spandex bike shorts. Now, though, these problems—and the persistent frailty of the global system on which corporations have built our physical world—have a singular visual metaphor in the Ever Given. She is huge, and she is stuck, like I am when I wake up with a hangover. Right now, there’s not enough ibuprofen and red Gatorade in the world.