A time of strange voyages

Past crises have demonstrated the flexibility of shipping and Covid-19 is proving no different

By Michael Grey

In all the economic and transport turmoil caused by Covid-19 and violent movements in the oil price, there are some very strange voyages taking place. There are giant cruise ships, emptied of their guests, sailing halfway around the world to get their hotel crews home. There are container ships, with a barely paying payload, being directed to sail around the Cape between the Far East and North Europe, to save the canal dues that might make a difference between loss and profit on the voyage. Fuel prices are low and slow steaming is encouraged. And there are fully laden very large crude carriers wandering almost aimlessly around the oceans at very slow revolutions, as their owners search the world’s ports for an empty tank, into which they can pump their cargo.

For those brought up on the discipline of ‘fast passages’ and always taking the most direct route, it goes against the grain to be behaving in such a way, taking ‘the long way home’ and forgetting those important words ‘utmost despatch’, which used to appear in all sailing directions. But these are uncertain times, and even if they will not be remembered fondly, they will be difficult to forget.

Ocean passages contain many surprises. Years ago, as navigator of a ship in the Queensland port of
Brisbane, the master, a chap with an inquiring mind, asked me to compare the various ways in which
we could return home to our home port of London. It took a bit of time, in the days before navigational computers, but I plotted a route across the Pacific via Panama, both north about and south about Australia through Torres and Bass Straits respectively, thence with the option of routes through the Suez Canal and around the Cape of Good Hope. For fun I threw in a passage through the Southern Ocean around Cape Horn. If I was doing the same today, I might have added a Polar route north of Russia.

Long and short of it

The surprise was that in all of these different options, there were only a couple of days difference between the longest and shortest route, before you took into account the sort of weather that you might have encountered. It surprised both of us and although I rather liked the idea of a trip through the Torres Strait, or even being able to boast of having rounded Cape Horn, we opted for our normal homewards route through the Bass Strait and Suez.

Since then, voyage plans have had to be abruptly changed on a number of occasions. The closure of
the Suez Canal was one of these strange interruptions in the 1970s. While in the 1980s, container ships bound for Europe from New Zealand would routinely head down into the storms of the Southern Ocean and the Horn, to save the costs of a Panama Canal transit at a time when fuel costs were sky-high and freight rates rock bottom. I remember meeting an old shipmate after one of these voyages and noting that he didn’t have his usual bronzed countenance after a blue-water voyage across the sunny Pacific, and hearing his tale of woe about rolling like a pig in the icy southern latitudes. We have had several periods when slow steaming has made short voyages interminably long, whether it was to save money, or the planet.

If you look at this positively, if nothing else, it demonstrates the flexibility of shipping compared with other modes of transport, as it does offer its users choices not available elsewhere. We might reflect on this when global trade and transport have settled down and shipping can once again operate optimally.