Salvage teams from the Netherlands and Japan have been enlisted to redraw plans to free a giant container ship blocking the Suez canal, as fears grew that the operation could take weeks.
Taiwan’s Evergreen Marine Corp, which leased the vessel, said the Dutch firm Smit Salvage and Japan’s Nippon Salvage had been appointed by the ship’s owner and would work alongside its captain and the Suez Canal Authority (SCA) on a plan to refloat the ship and let traffic resume on one of the world’s key trade routes.
“Evergreen Line will continue to coordinate with the shipowner and Suez Canal Authority to deal with the situation with the utmost urgency, ensuring the resumption of the voyage as soon as possible and to mitigate the effects of the incident,” Evergreen said.
Efforts to refloat the 400-metre-long, 220,000-tonne Ever Given resumed on Thursday after a brief overnight suspension.
Dredgers have so far tried to clear silt around the ship, and tugboats have tried to nudge it free. From the shore, at least one excavator has dug into the canal’s sandy banks, suggesting the bow of the ship had ploughed into it.
Tailbacks of oil and gas tankers and bulk grain vessels have developed at both ends of the canal, according to tracking data, creating one of the worst shipping jams for years, of 206 large container ships.
The blockage comes on top of the disruption the Covid-19 pandemic has caused to world trade in the past year. Trade volumes have been hit by ship cancellations, container shortages and slower handling at ports.
The SCA, which had allowed some vessels to enter the canal in the hope the blockage would be cleared, said it had temporarily suspended all traffic on Thursday. The shipping giant Maersk said in a customer advisory it had seven vessels affected.
The SCA chairman, Osama Rabie, said: “Once we get this boat out then that’s it, things will go back to normal. God willing, we’ll be done today.”
However, Peter Berdowski, CEO of Boskalis, a specialist dredging company that has sent a crew to the scene, said data so far suggested “it is not really possible to pull it loose” and that the ship may need to be unloaded. “We can’t exclude it might take weeks, depending on the situation,” Berdowski told Dutch television.
He said the ship’s bow and stern had been lifted up against either side of the canal. “It’s like an enormous beached whale. It’s an enormous weight on the sand. We might have to work with a combination of reducing the weight by removing containers, oil and water from the ship, tugboats and dredging of sand.”
Peter Sands, chief shipping analyst at the shipowners association Bimco, said companies were still counting on the canal reopening soon, “but they are slowly moving to the second contingency plan where this will drag on for another four or five days, and they fear it could go on even longer”.
In that case some would redirect vessels on their way to the canal to alternative routes that would be costlier in terms of time and fuel.
Industry experts said a flood of insurance claims was likely, covering the vast amounts of cargo that have been held up.
The Taiwan-owned MV Ever Given lodged sideways across the Suez canal. Photograph: Planet Labs/AFP/Getty Images
In addition to the economic implications, security experts said idling ships in the Red Sea could become targets, after a series of attacks against shipping in the Middle East amid tensions between Iran and the US.
The Ever Given, a Panama-flagged and Taiwan-operated ship, ran aground on Tuesday morning. The SCA said the ship lost the ability to steer amid high winds and a dust storm.
Evergreen Marine Corp said the Ever Given had been overcome by strong winds as it entered the canal, which aligns with earlier Egyptian accounts. High winds and a sandstorm struck the area on Tuesday, with winds gusting to 30mph.
An initial report suggested the ship had suffered a power blackout before the incident, something the vessel’s technical manager, Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement, denied.
“Initial investigations rule out any mechanical or engine failure as a cause of the grounding,” the company said.
GAC, a Dubai-based marine services company, said on Wednesday that the vessel had been partially refloated and was now resting alongside the canal bank. “Convoys and traffic are expected to resume as soon as vessel is towed to another position,” it said.
Ship-tracking software shows there have been minor changes to the Ever Given’s position over the past 24 hours.
Workers are seen next to the container ship which was hit by strong wind and ran aground in the Suez Canal. Photograph: Reuters
Cargo ships trapped behind the Ever Given will be reversed south back to Port Suez to free the channel. Authorities hope to do the same with the Ever Given when they can free it.
Ranjith Raja, an analyst with the financial services data firm Refinitiv, said that even once the ship was freed the delay would have a flow-on effect across the shipping industry.
“We have to keep in mind the number of transits the canal can handle is limited to the tides in the canal … the number of pilots they have in order to guide the vessels on either side and the number of ships limited in the convoy being taken through. They can increase these, but there is always going to be a ripple effect that’ll keep growing day by day.”
Container ship runs aground in Suez canal causing traffic jam – video
The ship had two pilots from Egypt’s canal authority onboard to guide it when the grounding happened at about 7.45am on Tuesday, the company said. It said all 25 crew were safe and there had been no reports of injuries or pollution.
The Ever Given, built in 2018, is among the largest cargo ships in the world. It can carry 20,000 containers. It had been at ports in China and was heading towards Rotterdam in the Netherlands.
The Suez canal, opened in 1869, provides a crucial link for oil, natural gas and cargo. It also remains one of Egypt’s top foreign currency earners. In 2015 the government completed a major expansion of the canal, allowing it to accommodate the world’s largest vessels. The Ever Given ran aground south of that new portion of the canal.