Suez canal: race to free stuck ship enters third day

The mission to unblock the Suez canal after a vast container ship became wedged has entered its third day, as pressure builds on authorities to get one of the world’s key trade arteries flowing again.

Efforts to refloat the 220,000-ton, 400-metre-long Ever Given will resume early on Thursday after a brief overnight suspension, canal service provider Leth Agencies said, amid fears the operation could potentially take weeks if the vessel needs to be unloaded.

Meanwhile, at least 150 ships laden with oil, automotive parts and consumer goods have accumulated on both sides of the Asia-Europe trade channel, through which about 50 ships a day passed in 2019, representing nearly a third of the world’s container ship traffic. Industry experts warned a flood of insurance claims covering the vast amounts of cargo that have been held up was likely.

The Ever Given, a Panama-flagged and Taiwan-operated ship, ran aground on Tuesday morning. The Suez Canal Authority (SCA) said the ship had lost the ability to steer amid high winds and a dust storm.

Ever since, dredgers have been clearing sand and mud from around the vessel, while tugboats and the Ever Given’s own winches try to shift the vessel, Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement, the technical manager for the Ever Given, said on Wednesday. Diggers on the bank have also been excavating the bow section.

GAC, a Dubai-based marine services company, said on Wednesday the vessel had been partially refloated and was now resting alongside the canal bank. “Convoys and traffic are expected to resume as soon as vessel is towed to another position,” it said.

Ship-tracking software shows that the Ever Given has made only minor changes to its position over the past 24 hours.

Cargo ships already trapped behind the Ever Given will be reversed south back to Port Suez to free the channel, Leth Agencies said. Authorities hope to do the same to the Ever Given when they can free it.

Bernhard Schulte denied early reports the vessel had lost power, saying: “Initial investigations rule out any mechanical or engine failure as a cause of the grounding.”

The ship had two pilots from Egypt’s canal authority aboard the vessel to guide it when the grounding happened around 7.45am on Tuesday, the company said, and all 25 crew were safe and there had been no reports of injuries or pollution.

The Taiwan-owned MV Ever Given lodged sideways and impeding all traffic across the waterway of Egypt’s Suez Canal Photograph: Planet Labs/AFP/Getty Images

Vessel operator Evergreen Marine Corp said in a statement the Ever Given had been overcome by strong winds as it entered the canal from the Red Sea but none of its containers had sunk. An Egyptian official who spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity similarly blamed a strong wind. Egyptian forecasters said high winds and a sandstorm plagued the area on Tuesday, with gusts of up to 50km/h (30mph).

Lieutenant General Ossama Rabei, head of the Suez Canal Authority, said: “The Suez Canal will not spare any efforts to ensure the restoration of navigation and to serve the movement of global trade.”

A pilot from Egypt’s canal authority typically boards a ship to guide it through the waterway, though the ship’s captain retains ultimate authority over the vessel, said Ranjith Raja, a lead analyst at the data firm Refinitiv. The vessel entered the canal 45 minutes before it became stuck, moving at 12.8 knots (about 24km/h or 15mph) just before the incident, he said.

The blockage could have a major knock-on effect for global shipping moving between the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea, warned Salvatore R Mercogliano, a former merchant mariner and associate professor of history at North Carolina’s Campbell University. “Every day the canal is closed … container ships and tankers are not delivering food, fuel and manufactured goods to Europe and goods are not being exported from Europe to the Far East,” he said.

In addition to the economic implications, security experts warned that idling ships in the Red Sea could be targets after a series of attacks against shipping in the Middle East amid tensions between Iran and the US.

“All vessels should consider adopting a heightened posture of alertness if forced to remain static within the Red Sea or Gulf of Aden,” warned private marine intelligence firm Dryad Global.

The closure also could affect oil and gas shipments to Europe from the Middle East. The price of international benchmark Brent crude stood at over $63 a barrel Thursday.

The Ever Given, built in 2018, is among the largest cargo ships in the world. It can carry 20,000 containers at a time. It previously had been at ports in China before heading toward Rotterdam in the Netherlands.

Opened in 1869, the Suez Canal provides a crucial link for oil, natural gas and cargo. It also remains one of Egypt’s top foreign currency earners. In 2015, the government of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi completed a major expansion of the canal, allowing it to accommodate the world’s largest vessels. The Ever Given ran aground south of that new portion of the canal.

With Associated Press

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