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Suez canal blockage: Egypt races to free giant vessel with help of several tugboats

The 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.

By: AP | Cairo |
Updated: March 26, 2021 6:52:15 pm
This satellite image from Cnes2021, Distribution Airbus DS, shows the cargo ship MV Ever Given stuck in the Suez Canal near Suez, Egypt, Thursday, March 25, 2021. The skyscraper-sized cargo ship wedged across Egypt's Suez Canal further imperiled global shipping Thursday as at least 150 other vessels needing to pass through the crucial waterway idled waiting for the obstruction to clear, authorities said. (Cnes2021, Distribution Airbus DS via AP)

A giant container ship remained stuck sideways Friday in Egypt’s Suez Canal, as authorities race to free the vessel and reopen traffic in a crucial East-West waterway for global shipping.

The 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.

The ship, owned by Japanese firm Shoei Kisen KK, has blocked traffic in the canal, leaving dozens of smaller ships stranded in the Mediterranean and Red Seas.

The vessel’s bow was touching the eastern wall, while its stern appeared lodged against the western wall – an extraordinary event that experts said they had never heard of happening before in the canal’s 150-year history.

The ship ran aground some 6 kilometres (3.7 miles) north of the southernly mouth of the canal, near the city of Suez, an area of the canal that’s a single lane.

Tugboats deployed to refloat vessel

Ever Given, a Panama-flagged cargo ship, that is wedged across the Suez Canal and blocking traffic in the vital waterway is seen Friday, March 26, 2021.  (AP Photo/Mohamed Elshahed)

The Suez Canal Authority, which operates the waterway, has deployed several tugboats in efforts to refloat the massive vessel, including a specialised suction dredger that is able to shift 2,000 cubic metres of material every hour.

As of Friday morning, the vessel remained grounded in the same position, with tugboats and dredgers still working to free it, according to Canal service provider Leth Agencies.

It reminded unclear when the route would reopen.

Officials say refloating a ‘sensitive, complicated’ operation

Ever Given, a Panama-flagged cargo ship, that is wedged across the Suez Canal and blocking traffic in the vital waterway is seen Friday, March 26, 2021. Tugboats and a specialized suction dredger worked Friday to dislodge a giant container ship that has been stuck sideways in Egypt’s Suez Canal for the past three days, blocking a crucial waterway for global shipping. (AP Photo/Mohamed Elshahed)

An Egyptian canal authority official called the refloating a “very sensitive and complicated” operation which needs to “be handled very carefully”. They want to avoid “any complications” that could extend the canal closure. The official spoke on condition of anonymity as he wasn’t authorized to talk to journalists.

A team from Boskalis, a Dutch firm specialised in salvaging, started working with the canal authority Thursday. The rescue efforts have focused on dredging to remove sand and mud from around the port side of the vessel’s bow.

The canal authority said late Thursday that they would need to remove between 15,000 to 20,000 cubic metres (530,000 to 706,000 cubic feet) of sand to reach a depth of 12 to 16 metres (39 to 52 feet). That depth is likely to allow the ship to float freely again, it said.

It wasn’t immediately clear what caused the Ever Given to become wedged on Tuesday. GAC, a global shipping and logistics company, said the ship had experienced a blackout without elaborating.

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 that none of its containers had sunk.

The Suez Canal also blamed bad weather for the incident.

Blockage bad for global trade

The blockage has caused headaches for global trade. Around 10% of world trade flows through the canal, which is particularly crucial for the transport of oil. The closure also could affect oil and gas shipments to Europe from the Mideast.

At least 150 ships were waiting for the Ever Given to be cleared, including vessels near Port Said on the Mediterranean Sea, Port Suez on the Red Sea and those already stuck in the canal system on Egypt’s Great Bitter Lake, Leth Agencies said.

Using data from Automatic Identification System trackers on ships at sea, data firm Refinitiv shared an analysis with the AP showing over 300 ships remained en route to the waterway over the next two weeks.

Some vessels could still change course, but the crush of ships listing the Suez Canal as their destination shows that an even-greater backlog looms for shippers already under pressure amid the coronavirus pandemic.

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