March 29, 2021

What the Suez Canal Means to Me

    Some years ago, a fly flew into my youngest brother’s ear. It flitted around frantically, buzzing, I suspect, from claustrophobia. The buzzing made my brother nuts; he called everyone he knew.  “What do I do?” he asked. 

    I can imagine that feeling: he’s got a fly droning in one ear, and bad advice droning in the other.

   Finally he went to the doctor.

   “Displacement,” the doctor said. “Pour water in your ear, and the fly will float out.”

   Well sure, everybody said. Why didn’t I think of that?

   Displacement as a solution – but on a much bigger scale than a fly – came up again Sunday afternoon, while my husband and I were driving toward Hartford on the Merritt Parkway in southern Connecticut. The gas tank on our Toyota Highlander signaled a dwindling supply of fuel. We pulled into a highway rest stop. 

   The sign read ‘$2.99 a gallon.’ 

   The most I’ve ever seen charged for a gallon of gas was in 2012, when gas prices hit $3.67. There were plenty of reasons for the spike, but a ship stuck in the Suez Canal wasn’t one of them.  

    We’d been watching with a detached eye the machinations surrounding the Ever Given, the container ship the length of a floating Empire State Building that’s been stuck on the shores of the Suez Canal in Egypt. Tugboats that for days pulled and pushed the Ever Given finally unlocked the beast from its shackles this morning, on a skinny, manmade waterway opened in 1869, when the Ottoman Empire still ruled. 

But work on the canal – in one form or another – began under Pharaoh Senausret III, who presided over Egypt from 1887-1849 B.C. – that’s B.C. – and continued under a succession of other pharaohs. 

Napoleon tried to improve it. Measurement miscalculations stymied him. Wars and other conflicts, because access to key waterways means power and money, colored the history of the canal.

 Then along came the Ever Given. 

I considered a call to the Suez Canal Authority yesterday to discuss light and load displacement.  Fill up the ship, it weighs more. Take a few of the 18,300 containers the ship carries off the boat, it weighs less. Why was I personally worried about the plight of the Ever Given? 

Because it was blocking the path of toilet paper. 

The United States uses more toilet paper than any other country in the world, according to the Statista Consumer Market Outlook. Other potential discomforts emerged as well. Oil from the Mideast has been held up. Tea. Any item from Nike, Gap, Peloton, Footlocker, Williams-Sonoma, Steve Madden, Whirlpool, and Urban Outfitters. 

Many furniture sellers buy their fabric from Asia and Africa; that fabric still sits on container ships that will wait in line for weeks to proceed. Whole couches too. IKEA is said to have 100 massive containers on the Ever Given, holding confusing parts of unassembled furniture. 

Granted, the pandemic slowed cargo shipping, among increased demand and fewer supplies.  But the grounded Ever Given blocked it completely. 

 Suzano SA is a wood pulp company that supplies about one-third of the world’s supplies of hardwood pulp, the raw material for toilet paper. Its ships had been waiting behind the Ever Given, lined up politely and hoping their numbers for admission to the Suez Canal would be called. That’s how it’s done at the Suez Canal: you pull up in your cruise or container ship, your livestock cargo vessel or oil tanker, get a number, and wait. If you’re a particularly big boat, a pilot or two from the Suez Canal Authority will hop on board to help you navigate the narrow waterway. It’s a two-lane highway, so to speak, proceeding north and south. Everyone waits their turn to join the orderly convoy, for a trip that typically takes between 12 and 15 hours.

Before the Ever Given went awry, I couldn’t find the Suez Canal on a map. I knew it was far away from me, 5,500 miles to be precise, in a slip of water that runs the distance from Hartford to New York City. I opened the atlas that rests on the server in my dining room, and I now know the Suez Canal connects the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea. That effectively connects the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean, and the factories of Asia to the markets of Europe and the United States. So this has been a geography lesson for me.

Although I didn’t know that toilet paper and the coconut milk that makes my dairy-free ice cream might be involved. 

Why couldn’t those ships simply sail down the coast of Africa? For one, the trip takes days two weeks longer. For another, pirates roam the waterways, particularly off the shores of Somalia and Nigeria. The piracies reached their zenith in 2012, but a mixture of increased security on ships and the arrival of private security posses and coast guards helped deter the growth. A few years later, shipping companies grew lax about security, and piracy grew again. Numbers are up. 

The good news: China only makes about 10 percent of the toilet paper used in the United States. Charmin gets its wood pulp from Canada and makes the paper in facilities throughout the nation. Scott’s too. This is a relief. Whatever else might be held up because the Ever Given grounded, toilet paper is not among them. 

I should bring this chat around to the concept of displacement, but it’s not going to happen. The containers stayed on the ship. Dredging, a full moon that created an unusually high tide, and the push and pull of tugboats united to free the monster. The Suez Canal Authority did not require my help.

I don’t mind. As long as there’s toilet paper. 

For the purposes of this blog, write about how the Ever Given’s brief moment of infamy may affect you. As always, read your piece aloud to anyone or any object within earshot. If you are or have been a participant in the Candlelight Writing Workshops, send it to me. You may not hear from me, but know that I have read it. 

– Jane