An elite team is preparing to tackle the challenge of freeing the huge container vessel that is blocking the Suez Canal, as a backlog of ships built up for a third day in what is arguably the world's most important waterway.
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Work to refloat the Ever Given and free up ocean-going carriers hauling almost $10 billion of oil and consumer goods was expected to begin early on Thursday.
Where is the Ever Given – track live
Tugs and diggers managed to partially refloat the vessel on Wednesday but failed to budge it as dredgers were still trying to loosen the ship before any attempt to pull it, the vessel’s manager said.
Still, the best chance for returning shipping to normal may not come until Sunday or Monday, when the tide will reach a high, according to Nick Sloane, the salvage master responsible for refloating the Costa Concordia, the cruise ship that capsized off the coast of Italy in 2012.
Mr Sloane works as the senior salvage master for Resolve Marine Group in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
At about 400 metres long and weighing in at 200,000 tonnes, the Ever Given's sheer size is overwhelming efforts to dig it out.
A huge yellow excavator, about twice as tall as its driver, looked like a child's toy parked next to the ship's bow.
The struggle to dislodge the ship is now falling to Smit Salvage, a Dutch company whose employees go from one emergency to the next, often saving vessels during violent storms.
Japan's Nippon Salvage Co has been hired to assist in the refloating, a source said.
This ship is so heavy that the salvage teams may have to lighten it by removing, for example, the ballast water, which helps keep ships steady when they are at sea.
Fuel could also be unloaded.
How to dislodge a 200,000-tonne ship from a canal wall
“Dislodging a grounded ultra-large container ship in the Suez Canal will be challenging due to the confined nature of the canal’s shipping channel,” said Rockford Weitz, director of the Fletcher Maritime Studies Programme at Tufts University in Massachusetts.
“This presents additional complications in comparison to a grounding on a reef or shoal.”
The Suez Canal Authority has not commented on the work or given any indication of when traffic could resume.
About 12 per cent of global trade goes through the canal, making it so important that world powers have fought over the waterway since it was completed in 1869.
For now, all that traffic is backed up with the Ever Given aground in the southern part of the canal, creating another setback for global supply chains already strained by the e-commerce boom linked to the pandemic.
“Every hour, more vessels – including container ships, oil tankers, RoRo [roll-on, roll-off] vessels, and bulk carriers – are being backed up in the Mediterranean to the north and the Red Sea to the south,” said Jett McCandless, chief executive of supply-chain tracking company Project44.
“It’s another big blow to global trade in an already backlogged and battered supply-chain year.”
An estimate suggests the blockage is costing about $400 million an hour, based on calculations from Lloyd’s List that suggest westbound traffic is worth about $5.1 billion a day and eastbound traffic approximately $4.5bn.
On Wednesday, 185 vessels were waiting to navigate the canal, according to shipping data compiled by Bloomberg, while Lloyd’s estimates there are 165.
About 34 container vessels chartered by Maersk and other shipping lines are either stuck in the canal or en route, according to Project44.
Preliminary reports show 10 crude tankers carrying a total of 13 million barrels could be affected by the disruption, according to Vortexa senior freight analyst Arthur Richier.
The incident began on Tuesday when strong winds blasted through the region and kicked up sands along the banks of the 193km canal.
The waterway is narrow – less than 205 metres in some places – and can be difficult to navigate when visibility is poor.
But Ever Given stayed its course through the canal, on its way to Rotterdam from China.
As gusts that reached as high as 74 kilometres an hour swept up dust around it, the crew lost control of the ship and it careened sideways into a sandy embankment, blocking nearly the entire channel.
It is still in the same position as when it ran aground, according to Inchcape Shipping Services.
At the heart of all of this is the ship’s size.
Container vessels have nearly doubled in size in the past decade as global trade expanded, making the job of moving such ships much harder when they get stuck.
Even while key routes – including the Suez Canal – have been widened and deepened over the years to accommodate the mega-vessels, the work to free ships after they become stuck takes enormous power.
The canal is among the busiest waterways in the world, used by tankers shipping crude oil from the Middle East to Europe and North America, as well as in the opposite direction.
The bottleneck highlights a major risk faced by the shipping industry as more ships travel maritime chokepoints including the Suez, Panama Canal, the Strait of Hormuz and Malacca Strait.
Such occurrences could become more common as ships get bigger and waterways get more congested.
Oil companies prepare for the worst as Suez Canal remains blocked
Oil companies are starting to prepare for the worst.
On Wednesday, there was a sharp rise in interest from oil companies looking to book tankers with options to avoid the canal, according to a broker, and several bid for space on the pipelines that allow the waterway to be bypassed completely.
For now, that is a precautionary move.
Container ships will most likely have to wait it out, as the main alternative is the unattractive option of sailing around the southern tip of Africa.
However, at least one shipment of liquefied natural gas from the US has potentially diverted course towards the Cape of Good Hope and away from Suez, Wood Mackenzie analyst Lucas Schmitt said in a note on Thursday.
The disruption comes at a time when oil prices are volatile. Crude surged above $70 a barrel this month on Saudi production cuts, only to slump to near $60 this week after setbacks in Europe’s coronavirus vaccine programme.
Brent crude rose more than 5 per cent on Wednesday.
Ever Given's crew are safe and accounted for, and there have been no reports of injuries or pollution, according to the ship's manager, Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement.
Among others, the vessel is carrying cargo for logistics company Orient Overseas Container Line, according to Mark Wong, a company spokesman.