Suez Canal: clearing backlog of ships after 'Ever Given' is freed could take a week

Concern grows for nearly 100,000 animals on livestock transport ships as tugs work to free 'Ever Given'

Ships are anchored at the entrance of Suez Canal, in Suez, Egypt March 29, 2021. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

It will take three and a half days to clear a traffic jam of hundreds of vessels after the now partially refloated container ship Ever Given is moved, Egyptian authorities said on Monday.

"The canal will be functioning 24 hours per day immediately after the ship has been refloated," Suez Canal Authority's chief Osama Rabie told Egyptian TV.

It will then take "around three and a half days" to clear the backlog, he said.

This could be an optimistic assessment, experts told The National.

"I would say it could take a week to clear the backlog. Each transit takes about 11 hours," said Dean Mikkelson, a maritime risk analyst, quoting the backlog of ships, which by some estimates is close to 400.

The ships are carrying everything from tea to oil and coal are currently waiting in the queue to transit the canal.

Maersk, one of the largest sea cargo companies in the world, has 27 ships currently stranded.

By one estimate, there are 93,000 animals in livestock transport ships, which may be running low on water and animal feed.

Ship cargo tracking services and animal rights NGOs have identified as many as 20 ships that could be carrying livestock, mainly sheep.

It was unclear how many of those vessels had already unloaded their cargo.

Shortage of pilots

"Fifty ships per day was the average that we saw based on the 2020 transit data. But we also tried to look into the maximum number of transits that the canal can handle, roughly 90 to 100 ships at peak capacity," said Capt Ranjith Raja, head of Mena Oil & Shipping Research, at Refinitiv.

Capt Raja said one problem was the number of available "pilots" that could be provided by the Egyptian authorities, as well as variations in the size of some ships.

"You need at least two pilots on board at any given point in time for navigating these vessels across the canal," Capt Raja said.

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"So it depends on these factors, whether they will be able to have this properly put in place in order to have a kind of streamlined flow of traffic. They should be able to handle upwards of about 80 to 90 ships to clear the jams."

More challenges lie ahead. As the backlog of ships clears, major ports such as Jeddah and Singapore will have to prepare for a surge in cargoes.

Saudi Arabia announced on Monday that it would be exempting ships from storage fees at Jeddah port to help ease the chaos.

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