A skyscraper-sized container ship wedged across Egypt’s Suez Canal and blocking all traffic in the vital waterway has been partially refloated, an encouraging sign for the dozens of ships backed up waiting for their turn to go through.
The MV Ever Given, a Panama-flagged ship that carries cargo between Asia and Europe, ran aground Tuesday in the narrow, man-made canal dividing continental Africa from the Sinai Peninsula. Images showed the ship’s bow was touching the eastern wall, while its stern looked lodged against the western wall.
Tugboats strained Wednesday to try to nudge the obstruction out of the way as ships hoping to enter the waterway began lining up in the Mediterranean and Red Seas. Officials said Wednesday that the ship has been “partially refloated” but as of Wednesday morning in North America, it was still blocking the way.
It remains unclear when the route, through which around 10 per cent of world trade flows and which is particularly crucial for the transport of oil, would reopen. One official warned it could take at least two days.
“The Suez Canal will not spare any efforts to ensure the restoration of navigation and to serve the movement of global trade,” vowed Lt. Gen. Ossama Rabei, head of the Suez Canal Authority.
Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement, which manages the Ever Given, said all 20 members of the crew were safe and that there had been “no reports of injuries or pollution.”
High winds a possible cause
It wasn’t immediately clear what caused the Ever Given to become wedged on Tuesday morning. GAC, a global shipping and logistics company, said the ship had experience a blackout, without elaborating.
Bernhard Schulte, however, denied the ship ever lost power.
Evergreen Marine Corp., a major Taiwan-based shipping company that operates the ship, said in a statement that 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 because he wasn’t authorized to brief journalists, similarly blamed a strong wind. Egyptian forecasters said high winds and a sandstorm plagued the area Tuesday, with winds gusting as much as 50 kilometres per hour.
However, it remained unclear how wind alone would have been able to push a fully laden vessel weighing some 200,000 tonnes. Typically, Egyptian pilots take over ships passing through the canal, but it wasn’t immediately clear if that happened with the Ever Given.
An image posted to Instagram by a user on another waiting cargo ship appeared to show the Ever Given wedged across the canal as shown in satellite images and data. A backhoe appeared to be digging into the sand bank under its bow in an effort to free it.
The ship ran aground some six kilometres north of the southerly mouth of the canal near the city of Suez, an area of the canal that’s a single lane.
That 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, 50 vessels on average go through that canal, so the closing of the canal means no vessels are transiting north and south,” Mercogliano told the AP. “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.”
Ship seems to have lost power, steering
Already, some 30 vessels waited at Egypt’s Great Bitter Lake midway on the canal, while some 40 idled in the Mediterranean near Port Said and another 30 at Suez in the Red Sea, according to canal service provider Leth Agencies.
There were concerns that idling ships in the Red Sea could be targets after a series of attacks against shipping in the Mideast amid tensions between Iran and the U.S.
“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 Mideast. The price of international benchmark Brent crude jumped nearly 2.9 per cent to $62.52 a barrel Wednesday. The North American oil benchmark, West Texas Intermediate, gained about $1.50 to trade just shy of $60 a barrel.
The Ever Given, built in 2018 with a length of nearly 400 metres and a width of 59 metres, is among the largest cargo ships in the world. It can carry some 20,000 containers at a time. It previously had been at ports in China before heading toward Rotterdam in the Netherlands.
The stranding Tuesday marks just the latest to affect mariners amid the pandemic. Hundreds of thousands have been stuck aboard vessels due to COVID-19 restrictions. Meanwhile, demands on shipping have increased, adding to the pressure on tired sailors, Mercogliano said.
“It’s because of the breakneck pace of global shipping right now and shipping is on a very tight schedule,” he said. “Add to it that mariners have not been able to get on and off vessels because of COVID restrictions.”