Egypt shuts Suez Canal amid struggle to refloat grounded megaship

Published March 26, 2021
Stranded container ship Ever Given, one of the world's largest container ships, is seen after it ran aground, in Suez Canal, Egypt. — Reuters
Stranded container ship Ever Given, one of the world's largest container ships, is seen after it ran aground, in Suez Canal, Egypt. — Reuters

CAIRO: The owners of a giant container vessel blocking the Suez Canal said on Thursday they faced “extreme difficulty” refloating it as Egypt temporarily closed one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

Salvage experts warned the shut-down could last days or even weeks, potentially forcing businesses to re-route cargo ships around the southern tip of Africa in a blow to global supply networks.

One major operator, Hapag-Lloyd, said five of its vessels were being held up and that it was “presently looking into possible vessel diversions around the Cape of Good Hope”.

Egypt’s Suez Canal Authority (SCA) said it was doing all it could to refloat the MV Ever Given, a 400-metre (1,300-foot) long vessel which veered off course and ran aground in a sandstorm on Tuesday. Tug boats, dredgers and heavy earth-moving equipment have been deployed but so far the ship has not budged.

“It’s really a heavy whale on the beach, so to speak,” said Peter Berdowski, head of Dutch firm Smit Salvage which previously worked on the stranded Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia and the sunken Russian nuclear submarine Kursk.

The salvage company was deploying a team to the site on Thursday to assess what it would take to dislodge the Panama-flagged ship, said Berdowski, CEO of its parent company Boskalis.

“We are looking at how much oil it contains, how much water — these are complex calculations,” he said on Dutch TV news programme Nieuwsuur. “I don’t want to speculate, but it can take days or weeks.”

Satellite pictures released by Planet Labs Inc show the so-called “megaship”, which is longer than four football fields, wedged diagonally across the entire canal.

With ships waiting in both the Mediterranean and Red Sea and in the canal, the SCA announced it was “temporarily suspending navigation” along the waterway.

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

“We sincerely apologise for causing a great deal of worry to ships in the Suez Canal and those planning to go through the canal,” it said in a statement.

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.

Oil prices had jumped by almost six percent on Wednesday in response to the Suez Canal accident, before dropping again on Thursday.

“What a single vessel can do to the global oil market is remarkable,” said Rystad Energy analyst Bjornar Tonhaugen.

“The stuck vessel in the Suez Canal created the visual definition of a supply route bottleneck, effectively disrupting one of the world’s busiest routes for all commodities.” “We’ve never seen anything like it before,” said Ranjith Raja, Middle East oil and shipping researcher at 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.” 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 Ship management, said the 25 crew aboard were unhurt and the hull and cargo undamaged.

Historic sections of the canal were reopened on Wednesday in a bid to ease the congestion.

The waterway drastically shortens travel between Asia and Europe. The Singapore-Rotterdam route, for example, is 6,000 kilometres and up to two weeks shorter via the canal than going around Africa.

It is therefore an “absolutely critical” route, 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.

Canal traffic has been disrupted several times in the past, notably during the Arab-Israeli wars of the second half of the 20th century.

It was closed for six months after Egypt nationalised the canal operating company in 1956, prompting an abortive invasion by Britain, France and Israel.

Published in Dawn, March 26th, 2021

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