The delicious guilty pleasure of being an onlooker over someone else’s misfortunes is called epicaricacy. The French call it joie maligne: the joy in other people’s suffering. It’s a national sport in the UK, but actually, it’s a human condition. Mistakes make us human, they knock heroes off pedestals, and it’s just so refreshing to be reminded that they happen — that none of us are perfect.
Of this I am sure — the blocking of the Suez Canal was the mother of all Schadenfreude.
And if you have zero idea what I’m talking about (I know these people are still out there), let me fill you in. As they say, a picture tells a thousand words —
But to give more context —
- On March 23rd, 2021, one of the largest ever container ships in the world, MV Ever Given, ran aground in bad weather in one of the narrowest sections of the Suez Canal, one of the busiest maritime shipping routes in the world.
- Lloyd’s List calculated that blocking the canal cost $400 million an hour, based on valuations of the canal’s westbound traffic at roughly $5.1 billion a day, and eastbound traffic at around $4.5 billion a day.
- Some container ships were rerouted around the Cape of Good Hope — adding an extra 28 days, and 12,000 nautical miles to their journey. Trade must go on, y’all!
The blockage was total. I doubt the captain found it funny.
And yet, the Great Suez Canal blockage of 2021 was comical. My, how I took delight in the epic event that was Big Boat Stuck. I loved this story. I lived for it.
And I say that with the deepest of respect, admiration and empathy for all of those who involved. And of course for those who were not — including, for example, Egypt’s first female Captain who was wrongly blamed for it by a media outlet, and the rumour then spread across social media networks. Thanks, Patriarchy.
But why was this story so uniquely satisfying?
Firstly, we all had front row tickets (via Twitter) to someone else’s mistake. That, my friends, is some compelling viewing. Don’t even pretend it’s not.
Now to clarify a few things here… When I say “mistake”, I am using a broad generalisation to cover sandstorms and freak weather and all of the things that went into getting a ship wedged sideways in a water body that just happens to be one of the busiest shipping routes IN THE WORLD. I am not a ship’s captain, and clearly, I could never handle the gigantic responsibility of navigating the world’s oceans and keeping the flow of global trade in motion, so I use the term with my tongue very firmly in my cheek. Think you can do better? Have a go at this simulation — I could barely get out of the port. So yeah, people in glasshouses shouldn’t throw stones. But still.
*Sneaks back to look for more Big Boat Stuck memes.
And when I say it’s compelling to take glory in someone else’s mistake — I am talking about this exquisite convergence of incongruity (a giant ship WEDGED in a canal) and morbid fascination, where we know something is wrong yet we can’t look away. For the record, I have hyper-empathy and am ‘Highly Sensitive’, so normally I never take any kind of pleasure in someone else’s discomfort. But the container ship stuck in a canal? That is fair game.
And of course, we all make mistakes. But there is just something so comforting, so reassuring, so glorious when it isn’t us that made them. So we revel in the experience of being an onlooker to someone else’s very big, very public problem. And this was no ordinary problem. This was a worst case scenario. You know — a balls-up that is visible from space kind of mistake. Wow. Next time I forget to record my time or make a typo in a client document, I’ll at least know it’s unlikely to break the entire global supply chain and cost $400 million an hour.
The second reason I loved this story was that for the first time in yonks, it was not about Covid. It wasn’t about Tr*mp, and it wasn’t even about the Royals. And I was so, so, so there for it.
And the third reason why I loved this story: it was simply that the scope and the scale of this problem was so easy to comprehend. It was so simple, it was elegant. A big boat stuck in the canal — something my 3-year-old niece could also understand. You didn’t have to get to grips with the ins and outs of capitalism, or how a rudder works, or the intricacies of the financial markets and the complexities of the global supply chain to know that it was a whopping, giant clusterfuck. You could tell just by looking at it. What a relief to not have to fight with relatives over the dinner table on this one, or engage in tons of research, Google searches, deep analysis, problem solving or critical thinking, or even figure out who’s side you were on.. It united the world, and it levelled the geopolitical playing field. How refreshing.
But there it was. One of the biggest cargo ships in the world, measuring one quarter of a mile long, getting stuck in one of the world’s busiest shipping routes. Never mind the where, the why, or the who. The facts are irrelevant. What mattered was a) how relatable this was, after more than a year of a global pandemic, death counts, and seemingly endless restrictions, and b) how simple the issue was. Everyone could grasp it. No jargon, no science, no analysis needed.
And it wasn’t just me. The internet LOVED it too. We all loved it. Which is why this post is really just a place for me to shamelessly stockpile some cherished memes for posterity.
When the Ever Given was finally dislodged, after 6 days of what I imagine to be relentless work to free it, I admit I was ever so slightly sad. It was over, and I had lived for those memes. The relatability. The parallels with human existence that the Big Boat Stuck represented. The memes were on point.
Neither the enormity of the problem nor the futility of the situation were lost on the geniuses of the internet.
Having laboured through 2020 on the struggle bus, the world in disarray, we were all learning what it is to face such a Herculean task, such an immovable object.
But, the boat was freed.
It went on its merry way . But wait — did it?! No! Of course it didn’t! Is this a pantomime?
Now it is now being held hostage for a ransom of $1 billion. This just gets better and better! So now we have the Ever Given ship forbidden to leave the Suez Canal by the Egyptian authorities until its owners pay up to $1 billion in compensation for the havoc that just got wreaked.
That is a big bill for a big traffic jam. And I am waiting to see how this is settled.
Even when the Ever Given sails on at last and the wheels of global trade start to spin again, at full speed, we too must press on.
This particular show might be over, folks, but the work still needs to be done. As with every single event over the last year or so, I really do hope we can all save the memes, learn the lessons, and do the work.