Container ships connect our global world

Published 5:55 pm Friday, March 26, 2021

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Back when I was in high school, I used to spend a week each summer down at Fort Caswell which is the site of a Baptist summer camp. Built around the ruins of the civil war-era fort of the same name, the camp is located on the eastern tip of Oak Island, near the town of Southport and just a bit south of Wilmington.

Our church group often stayed at a cottage close to the waterfront, right at the spot where the Cape Fear River meets the Atlantic Ocean. When we had free time, sometimes I’d just sit on the porch and watch all the boats and ships pass by. It was very peaceful, seeing them cut through the wind and water on their way to their destination.

My favorite thing, however, was seeing a huge container ship arrive. The sheer size was almost unbelievable to me back then when I was a teenager. The ships were so massive they’d basically block the entire view of everything else while they slowly made their way up the river towards the Port of Wilmington. Any other boat passing by at the same time looked merely like tiny toys floating in a bathtub. Stacked on the deck of each ship were hundreds of containers in an array of colors, carrying presumably an array of different commodities inside each one.

Any time a container ship would sail by, I’d stop whatever I was doing at the moment just to watch it.

I was always too distracted by the size (wondering each time if the ship would make it successfully up the narrow river) that I didn’t think too much about where the ships were coming from or what cargo they were transporting. It was years later actually that I learned more about the logistics of shipping containers themselves.

When I worked at a cotton gin, I’d often take care of paperwork for trucks coming in to pick up cotton bales. Some were trailers going to haul the cotton to other places in North Carolina or across the United States. But other trucks carried containers that would later be dropped at a port to be loaded onto a massive ship that would then cross the ocean to a foreign country. Those containers were almost always painted in a bright color like orange or yellow or blue, so I knew immediately what they were before the truck driver even stepped into the office and asked for the paperwork.

I think that was when I fully grasped the scope of what those big old ships really do. So many goods and commodities travel all around the globe, starting in one time zone and docking in a completely different one. They pass by plenty of places I’ve never even dreamed of before. Trade is one way the billions of us on this planet stay connected with each other.

I was reminded of these old memories this week after a news headline caught my attention. An unfortunate container ship traveling through the Suez Canal got stuck. And when I say stuck, I mean really stuck! The ship, named the Ever Given, got stuck crossways in the canal, making it impossible for any other ship to pass through. It’s a traffic jam in the water.

By the time you read this column, the waterway should probably be open again, but as of the time I’m writing this, officials are estimating it could take up to two days to get the gigantic ship back on track. What a mess!

In the meantime, several other ships are also stuck just waiting for the path to clear, which leaves plenty of people waiting longer for deliveries around the world. Crude oil, in particular, is one of the most shipped commodities through that canal, and the delay will definitely cause prices to fluctuate.

The Suez Canal, which first opened in 1869, is located in Egypt. It cuts through a portion of the country to connect ships traveling between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, saving time so that ships don’t have to sail all the way around Africa to get to the other side of the world. According to information from the History Channel, the canal is 120 miles long and took 10 years to construct. (Much of the construction was done by slave labor and many people died in the process.) The canal has been at the center of conflicts over the years, including the Suez Crisis (1956) and the Six-Day War (1967).

In 2015, Egypt completed an expansion in one part of the canal route, widening it enough that two ships could pass through at the same time.

Unfortunately for the Ever Given ship this week, they ran aground in a narrower part of the route that hadn’t been expanded yet.

This week’s chaos in the canal is a good reminder of just how interconnected we are across the world. One errant ship can cause repercussions globally. I thought it was a pretty interesting story to read about, and a nice reminder of some old memories.

Anything interesting you’ve read about recently?

Holly Taylor is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at or 252-332-7206.