More than 100 ships laden with cargo including oil, automotive parts and consumer goods remain jammed at the Suez canal as tugboats and dredgers raced to free a stricken container ship blocking one of the world’s key trade arteries.
The 220,000-ton, 400-metre-long Ever Given, one of a class of enormous new vessels labelled “megaships”, became stuck near the southern end of the canal on Tuesday morning. The Suez Canal Authority (SCA) said it had lost the ability to steer amid high winds and a dust storm.
GAC, a Dubai-based marine services company, said the ship had been partially refloated and moved alongside the canal bank by Wednesday afternoon local time, citing information from the canal authority. “Convoys and traffic are expected to resume as soon as the vessel is towed to another position,” it said on its website.
Traffic is banked up on both sides of the lane, key to Asia-Europe trade, through which about 50 ships a day passed in 2019, representing nearly a third of the world’s container ship traffic.
About 30 vessels waited at Egypt’s Great Bitter Lake midway along the canal, while 40 idled in the Mediterranean near Port Said and another 30 at Suez in the Red Sea, according to canal service provider Leth Agencies. Old sections of the canal have been reopened in an effort to ease congestion.
Analysts predicted disruptions in traffic even if the Ever Given were freed imminently. “When the blockage is cleared, ships will race to make up for the lost time and that could be an issue for the arrival ports,” said Peter Sand, the chief shipping analyst with Bimco, an international association for shipowners.
Ranjith Raja, of the financial data firm Refinitiv, said: “We’ve never seen anything like this before but it’s likely that resulting congestion will take several days to weeks to clear. It is expected to have a ripple effect on the other convoys, schedules and global markets.”
He said 27 of the ships identified to be waiting on either side of the Ever Given were carrying an estimated 1.9m metric tonnes of oil.
The ship broker Braemar told Agence France-Presse that if the tugboats were unable to move the ship, some containers may have to be removed by crane barge to lighten the vessel, and “this can take days, maybe weeks”.
Pictures taken from another ship in the canal, the Maersk Denver, showed the Ever Given lodged at an angle across the waterway. Julianne Cona, who posted a picture on Instagram, watched the drama unfold as her ship waited at anchor. “They had a bunch of tugs trying to pull and push it earlier but it was going nowhere,” she wrote.
The boat ran aground in the canal at about 0540 GMT on Tuesday, having been moving at 15mph. All crew were safe and accounted for and there were no reports of injuries or pollution, said the ship’s technical manager, Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement (BSM).
Jamil Sayegh, a former captain and maritime law specialist with experience of navigating the canal, said the accident was probably in part due to strong winds that turned the containers above deck into a vast sail that blew the vessel off course.
“The force generated by the wind would have unintentionally altered the heading of the vessel,” Sayegh said, but he added that human error may also have been a factor since ships traverse the canal in convoys and none of the vessels behind the Ever Given had run into similar trouble.
“Ships are machines run by propulsion engines with rudders that are almost identical in all vessels. The variables onboard are the software and the personnel.” Vessels passing through the Suez are also obliged to use Egyptian pilots to help them navigate the stretch, he said.
Weather forecasts would have shown that winds were strong on Tuesday – Egyptian forecasters said high winds and a sandstorm had hit the area, with winds gusting as much as 31mph – but Sayegh said canal authorities and mariners tried not to delay passage.
“If you delay this vessel at Suez anchorage, it means you are making the shipowner lose $60,000 [£44,000] per day or $3-4,000 per hour of delay,” said Sayegh, the Beirut agent for the shipping journal Lloyd’s.
The Ever Given, one of a new category of so-called ultra-large container ships (ULCS), some of which are too big for the Panama canal that links the Atlantic and Pacific, was carrying hundreds of containers bound for Rotterdam from China.
Analysts said the incentive not to pause journeys had grown more acute with the rise of just-in-time supply chains. “For decades shipping has been the invisible conveyer belt at sea, enabling large manufacturing industries like automative to do just-in-time shipments, even though from time to time shippers are calling foul in terms of the reliability of the schedule,” said the shipping analyst Sand.
Holger Loesch, the deputy director general of the Federation of German Industries, said the blockage had exacerbated an already “tense situation in the international transport of containers”.
Camille Egloff, a maritime transport specialist at Boston Consulting Group, warned of “domino effects in European ports in the days to come”.
The Suez canal is one of the most important waterways in the world, linking the Mediterranean with the Red Sea and shipping lanes to Asia. It is 120 miles (190km) long, 24 metres (79ft) deep and 205 metres wide and can handle dozens of giant container ships a day. It was expanded in 2015 to enable ships to transit in both directions simultaneously, but only in part of the waterway.
Its role as a cornerstone of international trade, particularly in oil, led the Egyptian president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, to announce the expansion as “a gift to the world”. It cost $8bn (£5.2bn at that time) after the Egyptian dictator demanded the project be completed within a year.
Egypt welcomed world leaders to a grand ceremony marking the opening of the new canal channel amid a wave of nationalist fervour about the project.
Ships have been grounded in the canal before. In 2017 a Japanese ship became stuck but was refloated within hours. Away from the canal, a more serious incident occurred near the German port of Hamburg in 2016 when the massive CSCL Indian Ocean ran aground and needed 12 tugs to set it free after five days.