The Suez Canal will be temporarily closed until a 200,000-tonne container ship jammed across the international trade route is refloated, the chairman of the waterway’s state-owned management company said on Thursday.
The Panama-registered Ever Given ran aground in a sandstorm and high winds on Tuesday just north of the city of Suez, choking traffic in both directions along the Suez Canal and creating the world's largest shipping jam.
As the operation was supended for a few hours late on Friday, it emerged that two more tugs are expected to arrive on Sunday to help refloat the Ever Given.
Suez Canal chairman Admiral Osama Rabie had said on Thursday morning that, "God willing, we'll be done today" but that early optimism cooled as the day progressed.
"We can't exclude it might take weeks, depending on the situation," Peter Berdowski, chief executive of Dutch company Boskalis, which is trying to free the ship, told the Dutch television programme Nieuwsuur.
On Friday, the ship's operator, Evergreen, said the owner of the vessel would be liable for the cost of rescue and repair.
"As the vessel is chartered, the responsibility for the expense incurred in the recovery operation; third party liability and the cost of repair (if any) is the owners," it said.
Adm Rabie's decision to close the waterway appeared directed at vessels still heading towards the canal rather than those waiting, suggesting they find alternative routes, dock in open sea or at nearby ports until the Ever Given is refloated.
A video released online by the Suez Canal Authority on Thursday showed a team from Smit Salvage, a Boskalis subsidiary, meeting with canal engineers to discuss the refloating of the Ever Green.
Lloyd’s List insurers estimated that the closuring of the canal is costing about $400 million an hour, with westbound traffic worth about $5.1 billion a day and eastbound traffic carrying around $4.5bn a day.
Underlining the serious implications for global trade, the Japanese owner of the cargo ship apologised on Thursday for the incident.
“We are extremely sorry for causing tremendous worry to the ships that are travelling or scheduled to travel in the Suez Canal, and all the related people,” Shoei Kisen said.
It said it is co-operating with its technical management company and the local authorities to get the ship afloat, but “the operation is extremely difficult.”
Where is the 'Ever Given' – track live
On Wednesday, shipping firm GAC reported the vessel had been partially refloated and moved to the side of the canal allowing traffic to resume.
But Lloyd's List, the authoritative source of news and analysis on shipping, said the 2018-built Ever Given had not in fact been partially refloated, citing the vessel's technical managers BSM.
The vessel remained firmly grounded, it said.
It said Lloyd's List Intelligence AIS tracking also confirmed that Ever Given has not moved since it ran aground on Tuesday, turned sideways and caused a queue of more than 200 ships.
Ship-tracking software showed that Ever Given has made only minor changes to its position over the past 24 hours, despite the attempts by nine tugs to haul it to deeper water.
GAC issued a note to clients overnight saying efforts to free the vessel using tug boats continued, but that wind conditions and the sheer size of the vessel "were hindering the operation".
"It is like an enormous beached whale. It's an enormous weight on the sand," said Mr Berdowski. "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."
A Suez Canal analyst based in the city of Port Said at the northern entrance of the waterway said that if the tugs fail to dislodge the vessels, authorities will be likely to relieve the vessel of some of its thousands of containers to give tugs a chance to refloat it.
Work to free the ship paused on Wednesday night and resumed on Thursday.
The Suez Canal Authority has given few updates since Tuesday morning, when the Ever Given ran aground.
Beside brief press releases, it released video clips of Adm Rabie monitoring efforts to refloat the Ever Given with dramatic background music. It has also released images of the vessel. It announced the incident nearly 24 hours after the Ever Given ran aground.
Local media, mostly controlled by the state, has given little prominence to the crisis affecting one of Egypt's top foreign currency earners. Authorities have, meanwhile, placed severe restrictions on access to the site of the Ever Given by independent media. Most of the length of the canal is a military area.
Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement, the company that manages the Ever Given, said the ship's 25-member crew are safe and accounted for.
The ship had two pilots from Egypt's canal authority aboard the vessel to guide it when the grounding happened, the company said.
At least 206 large container ships, tankers carrying oil and gas and bulk vessels hauling grain are now waiting near Port Said on the Mediterranean Sea, Port Suez on the Red Sea or are already stuck in the canal system on Egypt’s Great Bitter Lake, canal service provider Leith Agencies said.
"We've never seen anything like this before," said Ranjith Raja, head of Mena oil and shipping research at market research company firm Refinitiv.
He said the backlog could take “several days to weeks to clear as it is expected to have a ripple effect on the other convoys, schedules and global markets – given the vital importance of the waterway”.
Mr Raja said that 27 tankers in the queue were carrying an estimated 1.9 million tonnes of oil cargo "equivalent to almost half of the UK’s monthly crude intake".
Almost a million barrels of oil travel the canal a day, making it vital for European energy supplies.
Cargo ships behind the Ever Given in the canal will be reversed south, back to Port Suez, to free the channel, Leith Agencies said. Authorities hope to do the same to Ever Given when it is freed.
About 30 per cent of the world's shipping container volume travels through the 193-kilometre Suez Canal every day, and about 12 per cent of total global trade of all goods.
Analysts said that if the blockage is not cleared within the next 24 to 48 hours, some shipping companies may be forced to reroute vessels around the southern tip of Africa, which would add about a week to the journey.
"Every port in Western Europe is going to feel this," Leon Willems, a spokesman for Rotterdam Port, Europe's largest, said.
"We hope for both companies and consumers that it will be resolved soon. When these ships do arrive in Europe, there will inevitably be longer waiting times."
Tuesday was the second major crash involving 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.