The Suez boat saga enthralled the world – but not those with naviphobia

When Grace Gibson was texted a picture of the giant container ship Ever Given stuck in the Suez canal, she clenched.

The image – of the gargantuan vessel wedged sideways into the canal – and the lone excavator working to free it – struck most as absurd. Against the massive underbelly of the ship, the equipment looked tiny. But for Gibson, a 26-year old Angeleno, it immediately evoked discomfort.

“That almost made me drop my phone,” said Gibson, who agreed to an interview provided she did not have to look at photos. She knows it’s hilarious, but she gets “a really uncomfortable feeling,” looking at big ships in general – because of submechanophobia, a fear of submerged human-made objects.

“If we’re just looking at pictures or talking about it, I get goosebumps all over my body,” she explains. The massive ship, which had blocked the canal since Tuesday and was finally set free on Monday morning has devastated global supply chains, threatened oil rations, and – as a comically large object lodged indefinitely – launched a thousand memes.

But for some, it’s caused a different problem – it’s triggered their fear of big ships.

The response touches a few different phobias: megalophobia (the fear of large objects) submechanophobia (a fear of submerged – partially or entirely – humanmade objects) en naviphobia or navisphobia (a fear of ships and sea wreckage).

The Chicago-based photographer Christian Anderson self-diagnosed his megalophobia last year. He is constantly on social media, where the Ever Given has been a trending topic all week. Eerste, he saw aerial shots of the ship. Fine. But when he learned the ship was bigger than the Empire State Building, it was game over.

“The size comparison, it triggers me," hy het gesê.

Intersecting all of these phobias, the Ever Given crisis provides the perfect storm to activate these anxieties, psychiatrists say.

While people may not actively dwell on these fears, “they may be intensely and sometimes even debilitatingly anxious when exposed to them, or even to images of them and can experience panic and sometimes even physical symptoms,” explains James C Jackson, a psychologist in the department of medicine at Vanderbilt University medical center. While there is little data tracking these phobias, Jackson suspects they are under-diagnosed.

The Los Angeles-based behavioral therapist Jon Roos points out that, “phobias are relatively common, but some do not typically interfere with daily living because the stimulus is rarely encountered.” In addition, “phobias can be experienced more acutely when they are experienced alongside other events – such as the pandemic – that increase a person’s baseline level of anxiety,” Roos said.

Like Anderson, people who react to big ships with fear often feel the same apprehension regarding windmills, tall buildings and whales. It is especially bad if the object pops up somewhere it has no business being, hy het gesê, like in the middle of a field. He lives in Chicago, a city full of skyscrapers, watter, grouped together, don’t bother him.

Maar, “if I was just standing next to the Sears Tower in the middle of nowhere, I would probably have a heart attack," hy het gesê.

Scale is a huge factor.

“I’m not necessarily scared of large objects, I’m afraid of the size comparison of [myself] compared to large things. A picture of an astronaut – if he was super tiny compared to just one of the holes for the jets of a spaceship – that would just freak me out. I can’t even explain it – I get super anxious. I’ve just gotta look away,” Anderson said, his breath accelerating.

Hence the terror of the tiny excavator. “It’s such a weird phobia. Why am I scared of this thing? It can’t hurt me. Unless it was like a whale swallowed me. Then I would just faint," hy het gesê.

Kate Horowitz, a writer who often writes about marine biology, also has cetaphobia, the fear of whales, and large ships, despite having both within sight of her home in Portland, Maine. Similarly living amid her fears in the Isle of Wight in England, Sarah Hart, 28, a manager had to skip past the news in the last week to avoid the sight of the big ship. “Can we go back to just talking about Covid instead?” she joked.

“I’m genuinely terrified of large objects – mainly boats, planes, sea depths and sea animals," sy het gese. “It’s not so much I panic or cry, but it gives me almost a seasick feeling and makes me feel a sense of dread.”

“It’s an overwhelming sense of feeling small and like that thing will fall on top of you or overshadow you. It makes my stomach feel empty and knotted, like if you drive over a hill really fast," sy het gese.

Both Hart and fellow Briton, illustrator Shannon Johnston Howes can trace their fears back to a childhood trip to London and being overwhelmed by tall buildings.

For Gibson, the negative feelings creep up around objects that are submerged – photos of shipwrecks, statues underwater, the Titanic. She will never scuba dive, despite urging from her friends. Scuba training in her home state of Virginia often takes place in a lake with a submerged bus, a definite no-go.

She’s at least the second generation of her family to have the big ship fear. Two of her aunts and an uncle share the phobia, albeit varied. Her father does not. She doesn’t like driving or walking past large ships like navy vessels, or even yachts.

Once the Kardashian yacht was in nearby Marina del Rey, when Gibson, a recruiter, was in the neighborhood. “That was pretty massive. I was like, ‘I need to avoid going near that one.’”

Soon, those anxious about the Ever Given will be able to breathe a sigh of relief, since the ship has sailed. But that doesn’t mean smooth sailing is guaranteed, Horowitz said. “The ship story will end, but your phobias stay with you.”

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