‘Beached whale’ ship could block Suez Canal for weeks

The 400-metre-long ship is blocking transit in both directions through one of the world’s busiest shipping channels.

Osama Rabie, chairman of the Suez Canal Authority, monitors the situation near stranded container ship Ever Given, one of the world's largest container ships, after it ran aground, in Suez Canal, Egypt, March 25, 2021 [Suez Canal Authority/Handout/Reuters]
Osama Rabie, chairman of the Suez Canal Authority, monitors the situation near stranded container ship Ever Given, one of the world's largest container ships, after it ran aground, in Suez Canal, Egypt, March 25, 2021 [Suez Canal Authority/Handout/Reuters]

One of the largest container ships in the world blocking the Suez Canal like a “beached whale” may take weeks to free, a salvage company has said, as officials stopped all ships entering the channel on Thursday in a new setback for global trade.

The 400 metres (430 yards) long Ever Given – almost equal to the height of the New York City’s Empire State Building – is blocking transit in both directions through one of the world’s busiest shipping channels for oil and grain and other trade linking Asia and Europe.

The Suez Canal Authority (SCA) said eight tugs were working to move the vessel, which got stuck diagonally across the single-lane southern stretch of the canal on Tuesday morning amid strong winds and a dust storm.

“We can’t exclude it might take weeks, depending on the situation,” Peter Berdowski, CEO of Dutch company Boskalis which is trying to free the ship, told the Dutch television programme Nieuwsuur.

A total of 206 large container ships, tankers carrying oil and gas, and bulk vessels hauling grain have backed up at either end of the canal, according to tracking data, creating one of the worst shipping jams seen for years.

The blockage comes on top of the disruption to world trade already caused in the past year by COVID-19, with trade volumes hit by high rates of ship cancellations, shortages of containers and slower handling speeds at ports.

The SCA, which had allowed some vessels to enter the canal in the hope the blockage could be cleared, said it had temporarily suspended all traffic on Thursday. Shipping giant Maersk said in a customer advisory it had seven vessels affected.

Berdowski said the ship’s bow and stern had been lifted up against either side of the canal.

“It is like an enormous beached whale. It’s an enormous weight on the sand. We might have to work with a combination of reducing the weight by removing containers, oil and water from the ship, tug boats and dredging of sand.”

Dredgers were working to clear sand and mud from around it while tugboats in conjunction with Ever Given’s winches work to shift it, the vessel’s technical manager, Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement (BSM), said.

Lawrence Brennan, a professor of admiralty and international maritime law at Fordham University, said physical damage to the ship could lead to a long-term blockage of the canal.

“[Ship-owners must asses] whether there is any further damage. The photographs from yesterday show the ship hard aground and that the stern is afloat. And that could possibly cause additional damage to the ship,” Brennan told Al Jazeera.

“If this ship were to break in half and could not be refloated and removed, that would lead to a long-term blockade of the canal in its present position.”

‘Very costly’

Roughly 30 percent of the world’s shipping container volume transits through the 193km-long (120 miles) Suez Canal daily, and about 12 percent of total global trade of all goods.

Lars Jensen, a Denmark-based maritime expert, said if the Ever Given container ship remains stuck, the impact on global trade could be huge.

When “the cork comes out, it is almost like a ketchup bottle, then you get both: all the vessels in the queue and the additional normal vessels coming into the northern European ports at the same time”, which will make a “massive congestion problems in the European ports, say a week to two weeks from now”, he explained.

The former European Union ambassador to Egypt says the crisis at the Suez Canal could prove to be “very costly”.

“Each day people have made estimates that between $8-10bn of trade is going through the Suez Canal – absolutely fundamental for European supply chains,” James Moran told Al Jazeera.

“It’s not just about oil,” he said, adding the goods coming from the far east, including China, were “just as important”.

Consultancy Wood Mackenzie said the biggest effect was on container shipping, but there were also a total of 16 laden crude and product oil tankers due to sail through the canal and now delayed.

The tankers were carrying 870,000 tonnes of crude and 670,000 tonnes of clean oil products such as petrol, naphtha and diesel, it said.

Output fears

The deputy managing director of Germany’s BDI industry association, Holger Loesch, expressed concern, saying earlier shipping holdups were already affecting output, especially in industries depending on raw materials or construction supplies.

About 16 percent of Germany’s chemical imports arrive by ship via the Suez Canal and the chief economist for the association of German chemicals and pharmaceuticals producers VCI, Henrik Meincke, said they would be affected further by every day of blockage.

The stuck tankers were carrying 870,000 tonnes of crude oil and 670,000 tonnes of clean oil products such as petrol, naphtha and diesel [Suez Canal/Handout/AFP]
Japanese shipowner Shoei Kisen apologised for the incident and said work on freeing the ship, which was heading to Europe from China, “has been extremely difficult” and it was not clear when the vessel would float again.

The owner and insurers face claims totalling millions of dollars even if the ship is refloated quickly, industry sources said on Wednesday. Shoei Kisen said the hull insurer of the group is MS&AD Insurance Group while the liability insurer is UK P&I Club.

The ship’s GPS signal on Thursday showed only minor changes to its position over the previous 24 hours.

Two professional rescue teams from the Netherlands and Japan will work with local authorities to design a more effective plan to refloat the vessel, the company leasing it, Taiwan’s Evergreen Marine Corp said.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies

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