Suez Canal halts all traffic as bid to refloat grounded ship hits trouble

The blockage has already hit world oil markets. Crude futures surged six percent on Wednesday as traders assessed the likely impact on deliveries.
Thursday 25/03/2021
Egyptian tug boats trying to free Taiwan-owned cargo MV Ever Given (Evergreen), lodged sideways and impeding all traffic across the waterway of Egypt’s Suez Canal. (AFP)
Egyptian tug boats trying to free Taiwan-owned cargo MV Ever Given (Evergreen), lodged sideways and impeding all traffic across the waterway of Egypt’s Suez Canal. (AFP)

CAIRO--The owners of a giant container vessel blocking the Suez Canal said Thursday they were facing “extreme difficulty” refloating it, prompting Egypt to suspend navigation through one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

The Suez Canal Authority (SCA) said it was trying to refloat the Panama-flagged MV Ever Given, a 400-metre (1,300-foot) vessel which veered off course and ran aground in a sandstorm on Tuesday.

Satellite pictures released by Planet Labs Inc show the 59-metre wide container ship wedged diagonally across the entire canal.

Japanese ship-leasing firm Shoei Kisen Kaisha said it owned the giant vessel and was facing “extreme difficulty” trying to refloat it.

“In co-operation with local authorities and Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement, a vessel management company, we are trying to refloat (the ship), but we are facing extreme difficulty,” Shoei Kisen Kaisha said in a statement on its website.

In a sign of the global turmoil the blockage has caused, the ship’s Japanese owner even offered a written apology Thursday for the incident as well.

“We are determined to keep on working hard to resolve this situation as soon as possible,” Shoei Kisen Kaisha Ltd. said. “We would like to apologize to all parties affected by this incident, including the ships travelling and planning to travel through Suez Canal.”

As shipping specialists warned it could take days or even weeks to budge the vessel, the Suez Canal Authority announced it was “temporarily suspending navigation”.

So far, dredgers have tried to clear silt around the massive ship. Tug boats nudged the vessel alongside it, trying to gain momentum. From the shore, at least one backhoe dug into the canal’s sandy banks, suggesting the bow of the ship had plowed into it. However, satellite photos taken Thursday showed the vessel still stuck in the same location, wedged diagonally across the canal.

“We’ve never seen anything like it before,” said Ranjith Raja, Middle East oil and shipping researcher at international financial data firm Refinitiv.

“It is likely that the congestion… will take several days or weeks to sort out as it will have a knock-on effect on other convoys.”

 ‘Days, maybe weeks’ 

The blockage has already hit world oil markets. Crude futures surged six percent on Wednesday as traders assessed the likely impact on deliveries.

Broker Braemar warned that if tug boats are unable to move the giant vessel, some of its cargo might have to be removed by crane barge to refloat it.

“This can take days, maybe weeks,” it said.

The vessel’s managers, Singapore-based Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement (BSM), said its 25 crew were unhurt and the hull and cargo undamaged.

A MarineTraffic map showed large clusters of vessels circling as they waited in both the Mediterranean to the north and the Red Sea to the south.

Historic northern sections of the canal were reopened in a bid to ease the bottleneck, with dozens of ships waiting at both ends of the waterway. However the stretch of the canal blocked by the container ship has no alternative channel.

The waterway drastically shortens travel between Asia and Europe because it prevents vessels from having to navigate around southern Africa’s Cape of Good Hope.

The Singapore-to-Rotterdam route, for example, is 6,000 kilometres (3,700 miles) and up to two weeks shorter than going around Africa.

It is an “absolutely critical” route because “all traffic arriving from Asia goes through the Suez Canal,” said Camille Egloff, a maritime transport specialist at Boston Consulting Group.

Nearly 19,000 ships passed through the canal last year carrying more than one billion tonnes of cargo, according to the SCA.

Egypt earned $5.61 billion in revenues from the canal in 2020.

Suez Canal blocked (AFP)

The Ever Given, built in 2018 with a length of nearly 400 meters (a quarter mile) and a width of 59 meters (193 feet), is among the largest cargo ships in the world. It can carry some 20,000 containers at a time. It previously had stopped 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. However, the Ever Given ran aground south of that new portion of the canal.

The stranding Tuesday marks just the latest to affect mariners amid the pandemic. Hundreds of thousands have been stuck aboard vessels due to the pandemic. Meanwhile, demands on shipping have increased, adding to the pressure on tired sailors.