SUEZ, Egypt – A maritime traffic jam passed to more than 200 ships on Friday outside the Suez Canal and some ships began to change course as dredgers frantically worked to free a giant container ship stuck on its side in the waterway and disrupting global shipping.
A rescue expert said the release of the freighter, the Ever Given, could take up to a week at best, and warned of possible structural issues on the ship as it remains stranded.
The Suez Canal Authority said it welcomed international offers to help free the ship, including that from the United States, although it did not specify what kind of assistance was being offered.
The Ever Given, owned by Japanese company Shoei Kisen KK, got stuck in a single-lane stretch of the canal on Tuesday, about 3.7 miles north of the south entrance, near the town of Suez. The ship remained stranded Friday morning, said Leth Agencies, which services the canal.
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Tugs and a specialized suction dredger were attempting to dislodge it, with Egyptian authorities barring media access to the site.
In addition to the more than 200 ships waiting near the canal, more than 100 ships were en route to the waterway, according to data company Refinitiv.
Apparently anticipating long delays, the owners of the stranded vessel hijacked a sister ship, the Ever Greet, and headed for Africa instead, according to satellite data.
Others are also diverted to avoid the canal. Liquid natural gas carrier Pan Americas has changed course in the mid-Atlantic, now aiming south to bypass the southern tip of Africa, according to satellite data from MarineTraffic.com.
About 10% of world trade passes through the canal, which is particularly crucial for the transportation of oil. The shutdown could also affect oil and gas shipments to Europe from the Middle East.
Captain Nicolas Sloane, a maritime rescue expert who led the large-scale effort to save the Costa Concordia cruise ship in 2012, said extracting Ever Given is “quite a challenge” and could take five days to a week.
Ever Given’s location, size and large amount of cargo make the operation more complex, Sloane said. The operation should focus initially on dredging the shore and seabed around it to float it again, rather than unloading its cargo, which could take weeks.
This is because the clock is structurally ticking for the ship as well, he added.
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“The longer it takes, the more the condition of the ship will deteriorate as it slowly sags,” said Sloane, vice president of the International Salvage Union. “So ships are designed to flex, but not to be held in that position with a full load of cargo for weeks at a time. So it’s not an easy situation.”
Global businesses are bracing for the effect the blockage of the channel will have on supply chains that rely on precise deliveries of goods. Singapore Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung said the country’s port should expect disruption.
“If that happens, some of the inventory will be needed,” he said on Facebook.
The backlog of ships could put a strain on European ports and international container supplies, already strained by the coronavirus pandemic, according to IHS Markit, a business research group. He said 49 container ships were due to cross the canal within a week of the Ever Given depot.
The delay could also lead to huge insurance claims from companies, according to Marcus Baker, Global Head of Marine & Cargo at insurance broker Marsh, with a vessel like the Ever Given typically covered between 100 and 200. millions of dollars.
Those trying to dislodge the ship want to avoid complications that could prolong the closure of the canal, according to an Egyptian official in the canal authority. The official spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to reporters.
The satellite and photos distributed by the canal authorities show Ever Given’s bow touching the east wall, while its stern appeared to be lodged against the west wall.
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A team from Boskalis, a Dutch rescue company, is working with the canal administration. with concentrated efforts on dredging to remove sand and mud from the port side of the bow.
It was not immediately clear what caused the Ever Given to be blocked, although the channel authority blamed the bad weather. GAC, a global transport and logistics company, said the ship suffered a power outage, but did not give details.
Evergreen Marine Corp., a major Taiwan-based shipping company that operates the vessel, said the Ever Given was defeated by high winds as it entered the channel from the Red Sea, but none of its containers had sunk.
Canal authority pilots board ships navigating the waterway to guide them through it, but the ship’s captain retains ultimate authority over the ship, according to navigation experts.
Ever Given was involved in an accident in northern Germany in 2019, when it collided with a small ferry docked on the Elbe in Hamburg. No passengers were on the ferry at the time and there were no injuries, but it was badly damaged.
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Hamburg prosecutors have opened an investigation into the captain and pilot of Ever Given on suspicion of endangering maritime traffic, but put it aside in 2020 for lack of evidence, spokeswoman Liddy Oechtering told the Associated Press.
Oechtering was also unable to say what the cause of the crash was based on the investigation, but officials at the time suggested high winds could have propelled the slow freighter onto the ferry.
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