I-695 Francis Scott Key Bridge Collapse in Baltimore

Dolphins or donuts, they are hopeless against a huge mass of momentum like that ship. If they are made of the normal huge pile of boulders the ship will push them aside, and if solid the solidity will simple serve to transmit the blow to the bridge.

Bridges are BIG, but relatively light and flimsy by design (that is the only way they can be cost-effective). A laden super freighter is NOT going to be stopped by dolphins, only slightly diverted, most bridges of most designs will simply get devastated if that much momentum hits them.

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Here’s a video of the accident sequence. No talking. No music. Just silence and the video.

My only comments:
You can see the lights go out on the ship at about 1:20. They come back on briefly before going out again. There is notable smoke coming from the ship as the lights come back on.

The impact happens about 4 1/2 minutes after the lights first go out. You can see something happening at the water line just before the bridge falls.

You can see vehicles crossing the bridge in the video.


Much different situation. With the I-35 bridge, the gusset plates were actually 1/2" thick when they were supposed to be 1" thick. That was the point of failure in multiple locations on that bridge.


Yes, they are called dolphins, and they were designed for the bridge (erected in 1977) for the largest ships at the time. Since then, of course, cargo vessels have become vastly larger, which means more momentum, less maneuverability, and all that goes with it.

The Dali can carry about 10,000 containers. In 1977 the largest ship had far far smaller capacity. (As you’ll note in chart below, the Dali is now “small” by comparison to many.

(I am reminded that the World Trade Center was designed to survive the largest aircraft impact - a 707 - when it was built. And then aircraft got wayyyyy bigger and carried far more fuel. So apparently civil engineers need to design for the future, not just the present - and the people who run the Port saved a couple bucks by not having to run tugs with all the ships coming in, but the bill now has to be paid in the form of hundreds of millions of dollars rebuilding the bridge, not to mention the lost business because of the imbroglio and the inconvenience to all of the drivers and commuters in the area.)

This is where the multiplier effect comes in. Take all the ports with a bridge. Now mandate that there are tugs with every cargo ship coming and going. You are going to need a lot more tugs, a lot more people working on it, and (therefore) added costs to all the products transported. It may be small on a per-product basis, but it will add up over time.

Now do the same for whatever the railroad accident cause-du-jour is, and you start to realize the costs of safety. They’re real, but you can never protect against everything. It’s a real problem to balance these kinds of extraordinary events and costs with adding layers of costs to everything in society.


If anyone is interested in the history and economics of the cargo ship like the Dali, you might want to read The Box by Marc Levinson. The shipping container and the ships that carry them evolved along with each other.

Again, the What’s Going On With Shipping channel on YouTube has the most concise, no-hype update on the situation.

A few highlights.

The black smoke emitted by the ship close to the collision with the bridge is typical for when an engine is restarted. Manifolds are opened wide to clear the engine so it burns very dirty in those scenarios. Engine shutdowns can occur if bad fuel gets into the engine. These ships typically burn VERY low quality fuel (bunker oil) but even bunker oil has ranges of quality.

An online system for tracking ship details called Equasis (at http://equasis.org) shows the ship has been consistently inspected at multiple ports under multiple jurisdictions over the past few years, including most recently in New York with no major issues found.



The “business editor” on the local news last night was spewing hysteria about the impact on profits of the port being out of operation for several months, while the wreckage is cleared.

Balto isn’t even in the top 10 container ports in volume. The “business editor” made a point about the 50 foot draft in Balto being one of the few that deep. There are four port facilities around NYC and four more in Virginia that have a 50 foot draft. Miami has a 55 foot draft.

It had crossed my mind to pick up some UNP, in anticipation of ship traffic being diverted to the west coast. Seattle, Tacoma, Oakland, Frisco, LA and Long Beach all have 50+ draft,

Seems the “business editor” on the local news was full of hooey, as usual.



So, do we invest in tug-building companies in anticipation of at least some new requirements?

Re tug boats.

Don’t modern ships have side propulsion so they can dock w/o tug assist? I suppose that means electric propellers on swivels. Cruise ships dock all the time w/o tugs.

I appreciated that straight forward presentation of the facts that are known at this time with very little speculation. Thanks for sharing it.

Docking is done at extremely low speeds, and cruise ships are light compared to super-freighters. The crux is the great god momentum, the product of velocity and mass. A heavily laden big freighter underway does not care about whirling flea wings, and can easily break a substantial anchor chain or its attachment point. Tugboats are extremely focused as they are almost all immensely powerful motor in small frame articulated with powerful steering gear.

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(yes, from my days as a tiny person I have adored tugboats)


If any learning takes place here, there are a few opportunities for investment, both for the US and for individuals.

Tug makers – If the immediate problem is going to be solved while politicians and businesses haggle over potentially MASSIVE construction costs for new bridge protections, tug boats are the most logical short-term solution for avoiding more of these disasters. Regardless of who makes the entire tug boat, there is likely a much smaller number of companies that make the engines for these boats. Detroit Diesel (under Daimler Truck AG), CAT, Daihutsu are examples of firms making “big boat” diesels for marine use.

Salvage – One concerning point made in the videos linked above is that US companies and the US Navy have ZERO naval salvage capabilities. We will be totally dependent upon foriegn firms who specialize in this. The videos mention the Dutch are the world experts in marine salvage capabilities and know-how. This point is more urgent than it first seems. There are a lot of BAAAAAAAAD actors around the planet who are looking at the 2021 Ever Given incident in the Suez Canal and this incident and coming to the realization that VAST economic and strategic paralysis can be induced with a single well placed obstruction in a major waterway. For the US to be reliant upon foriegn companies and their priorities even to clear wreckage from our own ports should raise alarm bells across America.

Port construction – If attempts will be made to add larger-diameter protective barriers around critical bridge piers in ports, the work involved is not typical land-based construction. If there are firms specializing in marine bridge construction, those would be a possible investment target. Otherwise, firms specializing in port construction might be a second-best opportunity. Most of these are international, with 2-3 based in India. There is one American firm AECOM based in Los Angeles.



One more update. This video clip from the WSJ includes an interview of a former container ship captain who comments on the theory that bad fuel may have caused the engine failure.

This person states that bad fuel has been a COMMON problem in US ports. He indicated he is aware of 30-40 similar instances in which ships reported similar problems… Bad fuel, stalled engines, damaged engine parts, etc.

Thirty to forty? THAT’S a problem the NTSB and Commerce / Energy departments need to investigate immediately.



Re 50 ft deep ports.

Panama Canal expansion must be part of the discussion. This ship was from Asia. Via Panama Canal?

Savannah and Charleston are recently expanded deepened ports for Panama Canal traffic. Recall New York harbor had to raise a bridge.

As to railroad investments I’d still bet on CSX and Norfolk Southern to benefit from redirected traffic.

Break bulk sites and auto parts etc often land in Savannah or Charleston. I hear warehouse investments are hot down there.

I’m working from memory here, but I seem to recall that the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach require ships to use a fairly high quality fuel when in or near the port, mainly for air quality reasons. I’m somewhat surprised that other ports in the US don’t have similar requirements.


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The narrative in much of the country runs along the lines of “whose woolly-headed, tree-hugging, wokie, notions kills jobs and make the stuff you want cost more”. Cleaner burning fuel is probably as much a non-starter as mandatory covid vaccination.



CSX and NS both serve Balto, so traffic would be zero sum: increased traffic to/from NY and Virginia ports, but zeroed out in Balto. Burlington-Northern serves Sea-Tac, but is owned by Berkshire. Only one that could see a net benefit from redirected traffic, that we Proles can buy, is UP.


The same channel referenced above ran a live stream last night and one commentor indicated he worked in the Baltimore area and knew people who worked at the port and had reported that the ship had multiple power problems while it was docked as it was being loaded. Conversation about that comment mentioned that many ports are STRONGLY pushing ships to use the ship-to-shore electrical capacity to limit idling at port burning the dirty bunker oil fuel.

If the commentor’s point was accurate that the ship experienced mutliple power failures while docked, that could either indicate a) the ship had a common electrical problem OR b) the ship was using electrical power from its diesels and onboard generators and encountered multiple failures due to bad fuel.



Cruise ships, some. But cruise ships need to keep people up high in cabins and not down in the smelly basement with engines and stuff. Cargo ships have no such restrictions and load practically down to the hull.

It would be irrelevant anyway, since this happened because of a catastrophic engine failure, so they lost all maneuverability, period. So while there was enough notice to try to close the bridge, there wasn’t near enough to get a couple tugs out there to tjry to deal with the situation. (Would have been tough even there had been, the incredible mass of momentum would have taken a long time to stop.)

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My point is that modern ships don’t need tugs like they used to because of improved maneuverability.

For safety looks like we think bridge piers should be better protected and perhaps tugs should be required even if not needed as a precaution.