International 25/03/2021

Suez Canal temporarily suspends traffic while it continues to try to free the ship

The ship 'Ever Given' has been blocking the passage of ships for three days and it could take "weeks" to remove it

3 min
A bulldozer tries to free the ship.

The Suez Canal has temporarily suspended all traffic while it still tries to free the ship Ever Given which has been stranded in the middle of the canal for three days after losing power in the middle of a storm on Tuesday morning. Although the canal authorities were confident on Wednesday that they would be able to remove the ship and open the passage that same day, the ship remains aground and small tugboats are trying unsuccessfully to move it.

In fact, according to Peter Berdowski, director of Dutch company Boskalis, responsible for the tasks to disentangle it, it can not be ruled out that it will take "weeks" to be able to release the ship, although he said it was too early to tell, according to Reuters. Experts say it is unlikely to be solved in one or two days. Canal authorities issued a statement to all trapped vessels to explain that they are working hard to tow the ship, but that strong winds are also hampering operations, in addition to the vessel's large tonnage.

Such a long blockade of this important shipping lane in Egypt, which connects Asia with Europe and accounts for 12% of global trade, could lead to serious disruption of maritime trade, with dozens of ships waiting to cross. An estimated fifty ships pass through the Suez Canal every day in both directions. By midday on Thursday, as many as 206 cargo ships had anchored at either end of the canal, or at points in between, waiting to pass through the passage, through which 30% of all the world's maritime container traffic passes every day.

The delays that accumulate in the routes of all these ships can then trigger a collapse in European ports, as ships that have been waiting for days all arrive at the same time. Experts quoted by Reuters explain that if the situation drags on some vessels could opt to change route and circumnavigate Africa, which would significantly lengthen their journey, both in distance and time.

Satellite image of the vessel in the canal

A mega-ship

The stranded ship is one of the largest in the world, 400 metres long, of the kind that cannot even pass through the Panama Canal, which connects the Atlantic and the Pacific, due to its size. With hundreds of containers of cargo on board, it was en route to the port of Rotterdam from China.

The 224,000-tonne, 400-metre-long Ever Given operated by Evergreen Marine Corp was still blocking the southern part of the canal on Thursday, where it entered on Tuesday on its way to Europe. Unlike the central section, where there are two parallel canals to allow the passage of ships in both directions, in this area there is a single passage, so that the presence of the Ever Given with its bow aground on the east bank and its stern on the west bank, completely prevents the passage of other vessels. Up to eight tugboats, one of them with a 160-tonne capacity crane, are still trying to drag the vessel out of the water.

Berdowski has described the ship as "a huge beached whale" and a "huge weight on the sand". "We may have to work on a combination of reducing the weight by removing containers, petrol and water from the ship, the use of tugs and dredging the sand," he told Dutch television programme Nieuwsuur, according to Reuters. Images reproduced on social networks showed the large cargo ship completely stuck across the middle of the channel and some excavators removing sand and rocks around the ship.

The specific causes of the accident are not yet known, but the ship lost control on Tuesday morning amid high winds and a sandstorm. The Evergreen shipping company attributed the incident to bad weather and said that the entire crew of the ship is fine, but an investigation has been opened to find out why the huge ship stopped working in the middle of the crossing. The Japanese company Shoei Kisen Kaisha, owner of the ship, has apologised for the incident and said that the work to free it is proving "extremely complicated".

It is not the first time that a ship has run aground in the middle of the Suez Canal: in 2017 a Japanese ship also went through the same ordeal but was able to be freed in a matter of hours.

The Egyptian government of General Abdel Fatah al-Sissi doubled the capacity of the Suez Canal with a pharaonic work that opened in 2015. Specifically, a second passage was opened parallel to the original one on 72 kilometers of the central section of the canal, allowing larger ships to pass in both directions, expanding the number of ships that can cross it each day and reducing its passage time to 11 hours. The Suez Canal, inaugurated in 1869 and extended several times since then, has a total length of 193 kilometres.

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