A few weeks ago, an international event occurred that was so huge, so news-worthy that the world community all at once sat up and took notice. Even people who didn’t usually follow world news heard about this.

A boat got stuck in the Suez Canal. Specifically, it was a massive container ship named Ever Given. The Ever Given is one of the largest ships on the planet, as long as the Empire State Building is tall (that’s over five Alworth Buildings, for a local comparison) and almost twice as wide as the largest lake freighter on the Great Lakes. It was quite the spectacle.

On the surface, however, it doesn’t seem that newsworthy. So a boat got stuck? Someone will eventually dig it out, right? (They did, though it took almost a week.) Why should we care about this?

It turns out, we really didn’t. Rather, we found the whole situation … humorous. This is understandable. No one was hurt in the accident (except maybe the captain’s pride), and there was no immediate danger of an environmental disaster. Memes popped up all over the internet, most of them championing the lone, tiny little excavator shown digging away at the edge of the canal. Next to the Ever Given, it looked like a toy that came with the Happy Meal.

The whole thing seemed comically futile, in an almost non-threatening way. The incident was going to cause global supply problems, sure, but we weren’t going to catch a deadly virus, or end up in a political cat fight over masks. The humor that the visual provided called out to us, reminding us that our accidents and mishaps are perhaps not so big after all, and that even the most powerful among us needs occasional help.

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Five iron ore boats were anchored in Lake Superior March 26, 2021, waiting to load in Two Harbors, Superior and Duluth. Shown (from left) are the Spruceglen, Edwin H. Gott, Presque Isle, American Spirit and Edgar B. Speer. (File / Adelle Whitefoot / News Tribune)
Five iron ore boats were anchored in Lake Superior March 26, 2021, waiting to load in Two Harbors, Superior and Duluth. Shown (from left) are the Spruceglen, Edwin H. Gott, Presque Isle, American Spirit and Edgar B. Speer. (File / Adelle Whitefoot / News Tribune)

The same day the plight of this monster of a ship came to my attention, I looked out my window and saw four ships anchored in Lake Superior, fresh from their winter layup. The day before, the big lake had been clear. It is a sure sign of spring, here in the Northland, the return of the great ships. It’s as reliable as robins and daffodils. Months had passed since I’d heard the music of the lift bridge rising.

The convergence of these two events got me wondering: How many of us know anything about the ships that grace our far-flung little port? Do we know what they’re carrying? Where they’re heading? What are they even doing out there? There are a lot of people who are quite interested in ship-watching and who could answer most of these questions, but what about the rest of us?

In truth, the entire shipping and transportation industry is designed to go unnoticed. As the consumer, we’re only supposed to notice the end result, the product on the shelf. The Ever Given, by blocking the busiest canal in the world and disrupting $400 million of global trade PER HOUR, drew attention to it because we suddenly had an unfortunate visual of one cog in the massive machine gumming up the whole works. Have you noticed a lack of your favorite coffee? Is your IKEA order backordered again? Now we know why. We’ve seen the disruption of the supply chain.

In the Twin Ports, we have seen this before. Remember the winter of 2013-14? It can be summed up in one word: ice. Lots and lots of ice. Lake Superior saw ice levels it hadn’t seen in decades, and as a result, our certain sign of spring — the return of the big ships — wasn’t so certain. The shipping season was heavily delayed that year because of the late, icy start.

Unless you worked in or with the shipping industry, the shipping delay was likely not on your radar, except as an interesting diversion. But perhaps it should have been. You won’t see a lack of coffee or toilet paper due to shipping delays from our port — at least not directly — but the raw materials our port handles, such as iron ore, grain, coal, salt and cement, to name a few, are essential to keeping our lives running smoothly.

It’s easy to forget, sometimes, that our local ships are out on the Great Lakes for reasons other than to draw in tourists or bridge beachgoers. The Ever Given was just doing her job, unnoticed, until she did something that made everyone sit up and take notice. So while I’m happy to welcome back our great ships as a certain sign of warmer weather, I’m making a goal to view them a little differently this year.

Kathleen Murphy
Kathleen Murphy

Kathleen Murphy is a freelance writer who lives and works in Duluth. Write to her at kmurphywrites@gmail.com.