TVs on the High Seas

The big news story of last week wasn't out of Washington D.C., or about the current state of Covid, or who has just cancelled who or what, or even the new line of TVs ready to flood your local Costco, Sam's Club, Best Buy, or any number of other retailers. The TV line is a joke, of course, unless you think we're obsessed with what happens in our own little corner of the world. Well, yes, we are, but the story could nevertheless have repercussions on consumer electronics for weeks or perhaps months to come.

It involved a giant cargo ship, the Ever Given, getting stuck in the Suez canal with hundreds of other ships lined up behind it and unable to get through with their cargo. There's certainly a metaphor here about how small incidents in transportation, business, personal affairs, and politics can have wide-ranging impacts, but exploring that is a subject for a book, not a blog.

How does this affect home audio and video? It helps to know a little geography—the course you slept through in the 10th grade (do they even teach geography anymore?). Pull out a globe or a map of the world (you probably don't have either one handy, but Google can help). Point to the Suez canal. You can't find it? OK, it's on the eastern side of Egypt, at the northern end of the Red Sea. Still stumped? There's always a night course.

Today's consumer electronics goods originate largely from east Asia: South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and China (the latter likely equal to all of the others put together). The products include both finished goods and the parts needed to make finished goods elsewhere. And that's only a small fraction of the products involved in overall trade. The bottom line is that the Suez canal might just be the most important shipping lane on the planet. It was built in the late 19th century to connect the Red Sea with the Mediterranean, and was later embroiled in convoluted political disputes and even wars. But today it's owned and operated exclusively by Egypt, the 50 or more ships passing through it every day generating billions in revenue for that country. Most of the cargo travelling through Suez is headed to or from Europe; cargo between Asia and the Americas generally travels across the Pacific.

Much of the Suez traffic is made up of immense cargo ships much like that now unstuck Ever Given. One look at the stack of shipping containers on a similar vessel, shown at the top of this blog, gives you some idea of the immensity of world trade demands. There are 50,000 merchant ships currently operating; over 18,000 of them pass through Suez every year. The Ever Given is 1300 feet long, over 220,000 tons when fully loaded, and capable of transporting 20,000 cargo containers with each sailing. Most similar container ships aren't quite that large, but are typically at least as big as a cruise ship. Cargo vessels transport 90% of the goods involved in world trade, and if they were stopped tomorrow (they're all powered by fossil fuels, and there's no viable alternative waiting in the wings) world economies, and modern civilization itself, could grind to a halt within weeks. The disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic would be small potatoes in comparison.

The world's oceans, even today, remain unforgiving to man. While modern communications now help ships avoid the worst storms—and pirates—the routes traversed by cargo vessels are as prone to rough today seas as ever. From a story published in the trade publication The Audio Voice, accidents do happen, as shown in the second photo here. So far this year, since November 30, 2020, more than 2600 cargo containers have been lost overboard while passing through rough seas, in both the Pacific and the Atlantic. While that's little more than 10% of the capacity of a single large container ship, it wouldn't be insignificant to us if the lost containers were filled with thousands of new, 2021 TVs or other home theater gear.

But we can hope that your anticipated 85-inch TV isn't on board the next time some freighter cargo goes missing, or the ship isn't delayed by incidents such as the Ever Given Affair—a great title for a Netflix movie, likely under development in Hollywood even as we speak!

Billy's picture

Oh, I know, make the TVs here. Problem solved. What should I fix next?

mround's picture

It's more complicated than that. The proportion of parts needed to make the TVs here, that are made Over There, approaches 100%. Back to the original problem.

James.Seeds's picture

For those environmentalist out there complaining about auto pollution these ships run on bunker fuel one the dirtiest available calculate the 50k ships out spewing this toxic slug daily, go to it Billy make it happen. We import tooth picks from China for God's sake.