Live Updates: Scramble Against Time to Free Ship Stuck in Suez Canal

Credit…Maxar Technologies

When the Ever Given container ship ran aground in a sandbank in the Suez Canal on Tuesday, its bulk blocking shipping traffic through the key global thoroughfare, the world looked on, wondering just how the authorities would manage to unstick the looming behemoth.

Days later, the vessel is still stuck, amid a frantic effort to free it, and fears over the cascading costs of the fallout. Already, shipping analysts estimated, the traffic jam has held up nearly $10 billion in trade each day.

Some experts were more hopeful on Saturday after a spokesman for the canal’s economic area said in a Facebook post that the ship’s rudder had been freed. The president of Shoei Kisen, the Japanese company that owns the ship, said it aimed to have the vessel released by Saturday night, according to Reuters.

But on Saturday morning, with a salvage team and the canal authorities still struggling to dislodge the four-football-field-long leviathan, global supply chains were another day closer to a full-blown crisis.

Vessels packed with the world’s goods — including cars, oil, livestock and laptops — usually flow through the waterway with ease, supplying much of the globe as they transverse the quickest path from Asia and the Middle East to Europe and the East Coast of the United States.

“Look around you — 90 percent of what’s in the room came from China,” said Alan Murphy, the founder of Sea-Intelligence, a maritime data and analysis company. “All global retail trade moves in containers, or 90 percent of it. So everything is impacted. Name any brand name, and they will be stuck on one of those vessels.”

Two tugboats beside the Ever Given in the Suez Canal on Thursday.
Credit…Suez Canal Authority

An armada of tugboats, their engines churning with the combined power of tens of thousands of horses, has been pushing and pulling at the Ever Given for days.

Cranes, looking like playthings in the shadow of the hulking cargo ship, have been scooping mountains of earth from the area around where the ship’s bow and stern are wedged tight.

But with the ship stretching about 1,300 feet long — roughly the height of the Empire State Building — and weighing around 200,000 metric tons, by Saturday morning they still had not managed to dislodge the vessel.

Peter Berdowski, the chief executive of Royal Boskalis Westminster, one of the companies appointed by Ever Given’s owner to help move the vessel, told the Dutch current affairs program Nieuwsuur on Wednesday that the operation to free the ship could take “days, even weeks.”

Mr. Berdowski, whose company has been involved in expanding the Suez Canal, said that Ever Given was stuck on both shallow sides of the V-shaped waterway. Fully loaded with 20,000 containers, the ship “is a very heavy beached whale,” he said.

The authorities first tried to float the vessel using tugboats, a tactic that worked to free the CSCL Indian Ocean, a similarly sized container ship that became stuck in the Elbe River in 2016, near the port of Hamburg, Germany.

Mr. Berdowski said that the Ever Given, operated by the company Evergreen, was too heavy for tugboats alone and that dredging equipment was therefore being used to move the earth from around the ship.

A video taken from the ship and provided by Mohammed Mosselhy, the owner of First Suez International, a maritime logistics company at the canal, showed several excavators digging steadily at the edge of the turquoise water near the ship’s bow on Friday.

As the dredgers worked, a team of eight Dutch salvage experts and naval architects overseeing the operation were surveying the ship and the seabed and creating a computer model to help it work around the vessel without damaging it, said Capt. Nick Sloane, a South African salvage master who led the operation to right the Costa Concordia, the cruise ship that capsized in 2012 off the coast of Italy.

If the tugboats, dredgers and pumps cannot get the job done, they could be joined by a head-spinning array of specialized vessels and machines requiring perhaps hundreds of workers: small tankers to siphon off the ship’s fuel, the tallest cranes in the world to unload some of its containers one by one and, if no cranes are tall enough or near enough, heavy-duty helicopters that can pick up containers of up to 20 tons — though no one has said where the cargo would go. (A full 40-foot container can weigh up to 40 tons.)

Captain Sloane estimated that the operation would take at least a week.

All this because, to put it simply: “This is a very big ship. This is a very big problem,” said Richard Meade, the editor in chief of Lloyd’s List, a London-based maritime intelligence publication.

“I don’t think there’s any question they’ve got everything they need,” he said. “It’s just a question of, it’s a very big problem.”

The port of Barcelona, Spain. A two-week Suez Canal delay could strand a quarter of the supply of containers typically found in European ports, one expert estimated.
Credit…Nacho Doce/Reuters

With each day that the Ever Given container ship remains stuck in the Suez Canal, the cost of the disruption grows more consequential.

After days of failed efforts to move the mammoth ship, shipowners began rerouting ships bound for the Suez Canal around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, adding weeks to their journeys and burning additional fuel — a cost ultimately borne by consumers.

When deciding whether to divert, a shipping company must consider the cost of sitting for days outside the canal versus the added time of steaming around Africa. It is not an easy choice.

“It is like choosing the queue at the post office — it is never the right decision,” said Alex Booth, the head of research at Kpler, a company that tracks petroleum shipping.

Already, seven giant carriers of liquefied natural gas appear to have changed course away from the canal, according to Kpler.

Container ships are also changing their plans. HMM, a Korean shipping company, ordered one of its vessels that was headed to Asia from Britain via the canal to go around Africa instead, according to Noh Ji-hwan, a spokesman for the company.

As workers race to unclog the vital trading artery, industry leaders are trying to figure out how big the impact might be if the crisis stretches from days into weeks.

Two weeks could strand as much as a quarter of the supply of containers that would usually be in European ports, estimated Christian Roeloffs, the chief executive officer of xChange, a shipping consultant in Hamburg, Germany.

“Considering the current container shortage, it just increases the turnaround time for the ships,” Mr. Roeloffs said.

Three-fourths of all container ships traveling from Asia to Europe arrived late in February, according to Sea-Intelligence, a research company in Copenhagen. Even a few days of disruption in the Suez could exacerbate that.

If the Suez remains clogged for more than a few days, the stakes will rise drastically. Ships now stuck in the canal will find it difficult to turn around and pursue other routes, given the narrowness of the channel.

Whenever ships again move through the canal, they are likely to arrive at busy ports all at once, forcing many to wait before they can unload — an additional delay.

“This could make a really bad crisis even worse,” said Alan Murphy, the founder of Sea-Intelligence.

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