Suez Canal saga recalls tense 2017 incident in C&D Canal

April 2, 2021

The recent stranding of the 1,300-foot container vessel Ever Given in the Suez Canal, and its brief disruption of the world economy, brought canals and global shipping into greater local focus.

Our coastal world includes many canals; ships entering and leaving Delaware Bay are part of our daily existence, albeit a mostly quiet presence as they slip in and out of view.

Big container vessels similar to the Ever Given, though not as large, pass by the capes of Delaware on a regular basis. Most of them are bound for container terminals in Philadelphia. They are among the regular pattern of shipping that we see off our shores and in the anchorages of lower Delaware Bay.

Other ships plying local waters include crude oil tankers bound for upriver refineries, car carriers headed for Philadelphia and Baltimore, refrigerated fruit carriers (Chiquita, Dole) headed for Wilmington, and specialized tankers carrying Pennsylvania liquified petroleum gases to Europe.

The largest commercially significant canal in our neck of the woods is the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, one of the busiest in the nation. The 14-mile connector between Delaware River and Chesapeake Bay at the top of Delmarva Peninsula dates back hundreds of years. Without it, ships making their way between Philadelphia and Baltimore would have to round the southern tip of Delmarva – an additional, and costly, 300 miles. On average, one to two ships per day make their way through the canal.

A 2017 incident in the C&D brings it all into perspective, with features similar to the Ever Given saga, though with little of the negative disruption.

Capt. David Cuff serves as president of the Pilots Association for the Bay and River Delaware, with headquarters in Philadelphia and Lewes. He recounts that in February of that year, eastbound car carrier Prometheus Leader encountered a fortunately rare situation at the railroad bridge crossing the canal near Summit Bridge in Delaware.

Not long after the vessel offloaded its Chesapeake Bay pilot at Chesapeake City and took aboard Delaware Bay Pilot Capt. Mike McGuiness, its ship’s radio brought word from railroad officials. The canal bridge was stuck in the down position, completely blocking the waterway to all traffic, disrupting the flow of commerce, forcing workmen to scramble to resolve the mechanical issue.

Cuff said McGuiness, charged with safely and efficiently piloting the Prometheus through the canal and into Delaware waters, had to think quickly to turn his vessel around and keep it away from the danger of a closed railroad bridge. That’s no easy task, considering the several-hundred-foot-long car carrier was nearly as long as the canal is wide.

With McGuiness instructing and the ship’s crew executing, they harnessed and coordinated the combined forces of the ship’s bow thruster, its stern engines, and the natural flow of the canal’s current. They nosed the mammoth vessel into the conveniently located entrance of a marina to give them room to straddle the canal from bank to bank before maneuvering the ship completely around to reverse course back toward the Chesapeake.

Other than disrupting the car carrier’s schedule, the careful action resulted in no damage to the vessel or the canal. It also avoided potentially greater shipping issues and damage due to the railroad bridge problem that was resolved in relatively short order.

“Those are the kinds of situations we have to be prepared to deal with,” said Cuff. “You never know when they will happen.”

In other shipping news, Cuff said the pandemic year resulted in a 10 percent decline in shipping traffic in Delaware Bay. But this March, he said, has brought an uptick in volume. “We’re definitely seeing an improving situation.”

Cuff noted further that while tankers importing crude oil once formed the bulk of shipping traffic in Delaware waters, that business has now been largely replaced by tankers exporting liquified petroleum gas – much of it in the form of butane – to Europe. There it is used as a propellant in aerosol deodorants, and as clean fuel for portable stoves and lighters. It is also used in industrial torches.

The largest container vessel ever in Delaware waters was the 1,156-foot Arnold Maersk. Cuff said the vessel passed Cape Henlopen in recent years on its way to the Packer Marine Terminal in Philadelphia.

The Arnold Maersk can carry up to 12,000 20-foot containers. That compares to the 20,000 containers aboard the Ever Given when it grounded in the Suez Canal.


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