A 400-meter long cargo ship that got stuck sideways in Egypt’s Suez Canal threatened global maritime shipping Thursday as around 150 other ships waiting to pass through the waterway got stuck waiting for the blockage to be cleared, according to the authorities.
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. In the time since, efforts to free the ship using dredgers, digging and the aid of high tides have yet to push the container vessel aside, affecting billions of dollars worth of cargo.
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 traveling and planning to travel through Suez Canal.”
Authorities began work again to free the vessel Thursday morning after halting for the night, an Egyptian canal authority official said. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity as he wasn't authorized to speak to journalists, said workers hoped to avoid offloading containers from the vessel as it would be a dayslong effort to do so.
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.
Lt. Gen. Osama Rabei, the head of the canal authority, said navigation through the waterway would remain halted until they refloat the vessel. A team from Boskalis, a Dutch firm specialized in salvaging, arrived at the canal on Thursday, though one of the company's top officials warned removing the vessel could take "days to weeks."
“It is, in a manner of speaking, a very heavy whale on the beach,” Boskalis chairman Peter Berdowski told the Dutch current affairs program “Nieuwuur” on Wednesday night. “The ship, with the weight it now has, can’t really be pulled free. You can forget it.”
Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement, the company that manages the Ever Given, said the ship's 25-member crew is safe and accounted for. The ship had two pilots from Egypt's canal authority aboard the vessel to guide it when the grounding happened around 7:45 a.m. Tuesday, the company said.
Canal service provider Leth Agencies said 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.
Cargo ships already behind the Ever Given in the canal will be reversed south back to Port Suez to free the channel, Leth Agencies said. Authorities hope to do the same to the Ever Given when they can free it.
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 (AP) 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 kilometers (30 miles) per hour.
An initial report suggested the ship suffered a power blackout before the incident, something Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement denied Thursday.
“Initial investigations rule out any mechanical or engine failure as a cause of the grounding,” the company said.
Tuesday marked the second major crash involving the Ever Given in recent years. In 2019, the cargo ship ran into a small ferry moored on the Elbe River in the German port city of Hamburg. Authorities at the time blamed strong wind for the collision, which severely damaged the ferry.
The closure could affect oil and gas shipments to Europe from the Mideast, which rely on the canal to avoid sailing around Africa. The price of international benchmark Brent crude stood at over $63 a barrel Thursday.
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 been 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.