Suez Canal blocked: all you need to know about the 'Ever Given' accident

At least 100 ships carrying millions of tonnes of oil and cargo are trapped near the canal

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For more than 48 hours, a huge container ship blocked one of the world's most important trading routes, leading to a backlog of hundreds of ships off the Egyptian coast.

On Tuesday at 7.30am, the Panama-flagged Ever Given ran aground in the narrow Suez Canal after being buffeted by wind, the Taiwan-based Evergreen Line, the time charterer of the vessel, said.

That blocked the path of 12 per cent of global trade, as hundreds of ships backed up in both directions.

It was a calamity that could deepen concerns over the growing size of so-called megaships, some of which are already too large to navigate major shipping channels such as the Panama Canal.

But if there was a risk of it getting stuck, why was the ship in the canal in the first place?

And what might happen to global trade? Here’s what you need to know:

Suez Canal blocked as container ship runs aground

Suez Canal blocked as container ship runs aground

How important is the Suez Canal?

The Suez Canal, dug more than 150 years ago, is one of the world's most important trade routes.

Originally the dream project of Napoleon Bonaparte, the French emperor's vision became reality only in 1859 – nearly 40 years after his death – through the combined efforts of French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps and Said Pasha, son of Egyptian viceroy Mohammed Ali Pasha.

Today, nearly 19,000 ships, or an average of 51.5 ships a day, pass through the canal with a net tonnage of 1.17 billion in 2020 alone, according to the Suez Canal Authority.

It also carries about 12 per cent of the world trade volume, and tariffs paid by ships entering the waterway are a major source of hard currency in Egypt.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, tariffs brought in $5.8 billion for the Egyptian government in 2019.

Without the canal, shipping journeys between Asia and Europe would take weeks longer, with vessels being forced to sail around the Cape of Good Hope at the southernmost point of Africa.

That adds 5,600 kilometres to any journey.

In some cases, shipping operators seeking to avoid canal tariffs take this option, but a big factor in this decision is fuel prices, elevated during the global pandemic.

Originally eight metres deep, the canal was expanded significantly in 2015 to allow for two vessels to pass side-by-side in opposite directions and it was dredged to a depth of 24 metres.

How did the Ever Given get stuck?

"It's not easy to get stuck if everything is functioning mechanically," Capt Tim Preston, a former British Merchant Navy tanker captain who worked extensively in the Arabian Gulf and Middle East region, told The National.

But the Ever Given appears to have been caught in a perfect storm of problems.

Forty-knot winds (74kph) buffeted the ship, according to the Suez Canal Authority.

“She operates like a huge sail with the containers on board,” said Dean Mikkelson, a maritime security analyst.

“These types of events generally do not happen, hardly ever,” he said. “There is normally a pilot on board that guides them through the canal.”

The National
The National

Capt Preston said that mechanical or communication problems could be the root issue.

“There are several reasons one can get stuck. Firstly, a mechanical or steering failure on the vessel or another vessel in the convoy. It could also be bad communications, for example, a multilingual crew and an Egyptian pilot not understanding each other, and wrong action taken on a given order,” he said.

He said that in some places, failure to pay bribes can make things worse.

“Gifts are still expected to be given to the pilot and linemen, if not this can reduce the level of co-operation, he said.

Have ships run aground in the Suez Canal before?

As a result of the 2015 expansion, groundings like the Ever Given are unusual events – especially given the ship blocked the canal at almost 90°.

But this is not the first time ships encountered trouble there.

In 2015, two ships – the Danish-flagged Susan Maersk and the Liberian-flagged Margret Oldendorff – ran aground in dense fog, reportedly after colliding.

But in that case, traffic was halted for only a few hours.

Before then, the 93,000 tonne Hong Kong-flagged Okal King Dor also ran aground, blocking the canal.

But tugs were able to move the ship within hours, as has been the case on numerous other occasions.

At 220,000 tonnes, moving the Ever Given presented a significant challenge – one of the largest ships of its kind in the world, it is classed as an Ultra Large container ship capable of carrying 20,000 shipping containers.

Common container ship sizes in the Panamax and post Panamax class can carry between 5,000 and 10,000 containers.

Compounding the problem, the ship's reported loss of electricity could also take some time to fix.

How long has the Ever Given been stuck?

Egypt has a huge fleet of tugs and dredgers run by the Suez Canal Authority and in the past, ships that ran aground were moved within hours.

But moving a 220,000-tonne-displacement ship such as the Ever Given is much more difficult.

When the USS Enterprise ran aground off San Francisco in 1983 it took nine tugs six hours; the aircraft carrier weighed 90,000 tonnes.

With the Ever Given, at least eight tugs, as well as ground excavators, worked to partially get the ship refloated. But that's as far as the dredgers were able to go. Now, dredgers are likely going to have to wait until the next high tide to try moving the ship again. Rescuers have said the operation could take until Wednesday.

The Suez canal has since been shut down, forcing ships not already delayed in the canal to reroute, impacting the global economy. To make matters worse, authorities are now anticipating that moving the massive cargo ship could in fact take weeks.

"There have been no reports of injuries, pollution or cargo damage and initial investigations rule out any mechanical or engine failure as a cause of the grounding," Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement, which is the technical manager of the Ever Given, said in a statement.

Suez Canal through the years