I’ve sailed through the Suez Canal many times—as a junior officer, a captain of a destroyer, a commodore in command of a group of destroyers, and as a strike group commander on the nuclear aircraft carrier Enterprise. It is a fascinating trip, and dangerous in a variety of ways. At various times, the terrorist threat was very high and we went through with crew-served weapons manned fore and aft, and helicopters over head. Exhaustion for the senior leaders tends to be a factor as it is a long passage. As a ship’s captain, I almost went aground in the Great Bitter Lake, as the Suez is called, after a couple of bad navigational decisions on my part, but, fortunately, my navigator saved my career with some good advice.
But as we’ve all seen over the past few days, it can be dangerous from the perspective of seemingly simple and routine marine operations. The grounding and wedging athwart the canal of the Ever Given is beyond unusual, and hopefully there will eventually be a full accounting of the factors that led this accident—weather, poor advice from canal pilots, bad ship handling all seem to have played a part. Fortunately, the canal was cleared after heroic efforts by Egypt and a consortium of nations.
There is another fundamental lesson to be relearned here, and it about more than just the Suez Canal. It is the criticality of a handful of so-called “choke points” around the world upon which the global navigational grid depends. These are spots where traffic patterns collide, and the tens of thousands of ships underway on the world’s oceans at any given moment come together in tightly managed traffic schemes. I spent a significant chunk of my life at sea passing through them.
They represent critical nodes that make navigation faster and easier, and allow container and cargo ships and their massive oil tanker sisters to avoid long journeys around inconveniently located continents. Certainly the Suez Canal is one of them, and the current blockage shines a spotlight on the costs even a few days of stoppage can create.
What are the other key points?
In addition to the Suez Canal, there are three international straits and one other canal that represent the major maritime choke points. These are the Strait of Malacca that separates the Pacific and Indian Oceans; the Bosporus Strait that separates the Aegean and Black Sea; the Strait of Bab-El-Mandeb at the tip of the Arabian Peninsula; and the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Arabian Gulf. The other canal, of course, is the Panama Canal.
The Strait of Malacca has problems with piracy, but the real danger is simply the volume of traffic. Massive ships are moving at top speeds on the equivalent of a two lane road, packed in close, with little real “maritime traffic control.” Of all the choke points, it was my least favorite to pass through, and when I did so as a ship captain I was up and awake all night.
For a warship, the Bab-El-Mandeb isn’t especially stressful, because the real danger is pirates; and Somali pirates aren’t going to try and tangle with a U.S. Navy destroyer. The Strait of Hormuz, on the other hand, is a tense passage, often conducted at general quarters (meaning every member of the crew is up and at battle stations). This reflects the dangerous and often unprofessional behavior of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard maritime units, who often attempt to harass U.S. Navy vessels.
Going through the Panama Canal is relatively relaxing. It is highly regulated, the pilots are first rate, and we often did a BBQ for the crew on the fantail, with the spectacular views of the lush and beautiful jungles of Panama passing on either side.
All of these straits and both the Suez and Panama canals are busy with high volumes of merchant traffic, and also full of warships from many different nations conducting transits as well. A breakdown on any of them can create the kind of chaos and discontinuity just saw in the Suez.
In all of these locations we should put significant focus on creating international authorities who manage them with an appreciation for their international character (the Suez and Panama canals both have well run authorities); conduct frequent drills and exercises to practice for disasters like the one that has just occurred in the Suez canal; have internationally funded resources to make sure they can remain open in crisis (as was done on an ad hoc basis in Suez); and have an international regime with regulatory powers inspect all of them frequently. Perhaps the International Maritime Organization, a U.N. body in London, has the most obvious case for international authority over these bodies of water.
Last week it was the Suez canal, but in the years ahead, all of these choke points are vulnerable. Preparing now to deal with the potential challenges makes sense, instead of trying to figure it out as we stumble along as happened in the recent Suez crisis.