Ever Given Ship, owned by Evergreen. from kees torn, used under license CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Why General Average is the Coolest Thing to Happen to the Ever Given Since It Ran Aground

You gotta love a 2,800 year old maritime tradition, especially when modern lawyers get involved.

Gregory Sherrow
May 4 · 5 min read

It’s funny how coincidences happen.

In the last few weeks you have probably seen a hot new buzzword (buzzphrase?) appear in social media. “General Average” is happening and it’s all thanks to the merchant ship Ever Given clogging up the Suez Canal like a burrito in a… in a… never mind. Chances are good that it’s as new to the people throwing the term around as it is to you. I would have been in the same boat (pun intended) if it weren’t for the strange coincidence that a fiction book I have been working on for the last six months happens to include the concept of general average in reference to a merchant sailing ship from Veracruz in the mid-1800s. I came across it while researching what would happen to a sailing ship if it encountered a hurricane.

Research like this is one of the great joys of writing fiction. There I was happily plotting along in the quiet hours of the early morning when I tumbled down a rabbit hole. I spent hours reading articles, scrolling through digitized books and downloading graduate theses on every topic related to what the hell happens when ship meets hurricane (spoiler: it’s not love at first sight). Once I got to the “things fall off” section of my research, out popped “General Average.”

Generally, it’s an average day at sea.

A long-ass time ago in a land far, far away…

So what the heck is general average? The fun way to explain general average is to jump in a time machine because the concept of general average was not invented for jackknifed container ships. It wasn’t even invented for sailing ships in my book’s time period of the mid-1800s. It goes back a little further. And by little, I mean a mind boggling 2,800 years, give or take a few meme lifespans, to 800 BCE. That’s the kind of date that historians officially refer to as a long-ass time ago. Historians know it existed in the Lex Rhodia, AKA, the Rhodes Maritime Code because it was referred to 1,400 years later in the Digest of Justinian, which has nothing to do with a high fiber diet. But, that is just where it is gets an official mention.

If you have ever perused the history, language or culture of that part of the world, you can bet a shipment of Murex sea snails that the practice goes back at least to the Phoenicians. It should come as no surprise that the Phoenicians knew a thing or two about trade voyages and going to sea around 1150 BCE was just as risky as in 800 BCE. Spreading, or averaging, out risk would have made a ship ton of sense. A merchant could spread out his risk by sending cargo on more than one ship, although it was an expensive option. If there was a storm, sea monster or pirates, he wouldn’t lose all of his investment. Alternatively, a merchant could shake hands on an agreement that spread the financial risk among everyone involved in a single, less expensive voyage. That may not help much if the entire ship ended up at the bottom of the Mediterranean, but ancient mariners were never short of challenges shy of sinking.

Pretend for a moment that you are the captain of a beautiful new merchant ship packed to the gills with juicy cargo. Suddenly, an unexpected storm turns the calm sea into a raging nightmare. Your ship is damaged and is taking on water. As a captain, you are fairly certain that the water should be on the other side of the hull, but there is far too much of the liquid stuff to bail before it’s bye-bye Boaty McBoatface. To save the ship, you have to throw a chunk of cargo overboard. Do you waste critical minutes calculating which cargo is the least valuable or guessing which client will be more likely to slit your gullet because you gave their cargo the heave ho? You can imagine how many ships slid beneath the waves while mariners stood around arguing. Thus was born the idea of general average.

Risk is a 4-letter word

In short (very, very, very short), the practice of general average attempts to spread the risk over all parties. The understanding is that without a ship, cargo wouldn’t get to where it needs to go, and without cargo, a ship would have no reason to embark on a perilous journey. If the captain decides that the ship is in jeopardy and thirty amphorae need to be thrown over the side to right the ship, then the loss of those amphorae will be shouldered evenly by the owner of the ship and everyone else who had cargo on that voyage. At some point, (probably on day two) the concept expanded to cover damage to the ship itself.

Off and on throughout history the idea of general average was codified into law, forgotten, remembered, re-codified, rewritten, de-formalized (is that a word?) until a fair number of countries got together and said “Hey! 1890 sounds like a good year to codify it for realz!” establishing the terribly named York Antwerp Rules, which the United States completely ignored until 1949 because USA! USA!

Chief MAKOi does a fantastic job of providing a real example of general average in action. Careful! His videos are addictive.

As you could have predicted, once modern legal minds got involved everything became overcomplicated, turning the once pragmatic idea of “we are all in this together” into “we are all in this together unless something happens in which case I am suing your ass.”

What the rules of general average will mean for those companies involved with Evergreen’s unlucky ship is anyone’s guess. Judging by how well it’s going so far, there’s a good chance that the case will be settled in time for the 200th anniversary of the York Antwerp Rules. That’s only 69 years away. Those lawyers had better get a move on.

Did I mention my book yet? It’s in the edit phase which means that every word is being replaced by another word that is better only because it is different than the word that was there before. If you follow me on Medium then you will know as soon as it is published. Heck, I might even tell you what it’s about. So, click that follow button!

Stercus Creek

The view from Stercus Creek provides a rich mix of topics…

Stercus Creek

The view from Stercus Creek provides a rich mix of topics on writing, management, remote work, running and social issues. Don’t forget to follow.

Gregory Sherrow

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IT Director of the Anna, Age Eight Institute at NMSU, writer, nut-job trail runner and part-time Stoic. hello@gregorysherrow.com | Twitter: @gregorysherrow

Stercus Creek

The view from Stercus Creek provides a rich mix of topics on writing, management, remote work, running and social issues. Don’t forget to follow.