Blocked Suez: how did massive cargo ship get stuck in canal and what happens now?

15:00pm, Thu 25 Mar 2021
CBAD8A00-D2B9-4E0E-ADDF-D0366C357A34 Created with sketchtool. E9A4AA46-7DC3-48B8-9CE2-D75274FB8967 Created with sketchtool. 65CCAE04-4748-4D0F-8696-A91D8EB3E7DC Created with sketchtool.

A giant container ship has blocked the Suez Canal with teams rushing to free the wedged, skyscraper-sized vessel that has created a major traffic jam on one of the world’s most crucial trade routes.

The tugs and diggers toiled on Thursday as over 150 vessels carrying goods to destinations across the world on tight schedules remained trapped on either end of the canal, which links the Mediterranean and Red Seas.

Over its 150-year history, Egypt’s Suez Canal has seen wars and crises — but nothing quite like the stranding of the Ever Given.

Now investigators are working out what went wrong and how to put it right and open the waterway to traffic again.

– How did this happen?

That remains murky.

The vessel entered the canal from the Red Sea on Tuesday morning and ran aground 45 minutes later.

The ship’s operator and Egyptian officials blamed winds gusting as much as 30 miles per hour, along with a sandstorm sweeping the area.

EGYPT Suez (PA Graphics)

Cargo ships have grown in recent years to take on more containers as fuel prices have risen because big boats burn less fuel per container moved.

Some have wondered if the ultra-large size of the Ever Given was a factor.

While the supersize of ships can increase their risk of running aground in the Suez Canal, boats just as big buffeted by winds just as strong have passed through the waterway without incident before.

Instead, it is likely that “a combination of factors” was at play, said Ian Woods, a marine cargo lawyer and partner with the firm Clyde & Co.

Two tugboats next to the Ever Given (Suez Canal Authority/AP) (AP)

“There’s the exposure to the elements, potential for a loss of power, potential for steering problems,” Mr Woods said.

“We’d expect a full investigation.”

The obstruction could prove embarrassing for Egypt, where the waterway long has been a symbol of national pride.

President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi poured 8.2 billion US dollars into a lavish expansion of the canal that was unveiled in 2015.

However, the Ever Given got stuck just south of that new section.

– How will they fix this?

So far, dredgers and tugboats have not been able to free the ship.

An expert salvage team, whose job it is to respond to boat-related disasters, flew from the Netherlands to the canal on Thursday to join the efforts.

Already, it seems the ship’s massive weight, some 220,000 tons, could make it impossible to dislodge and float.

The head of the Suez Canal Authority, Lieutenant General Ossama Rabei, centre, with a team look from another vessel towards the Ever Given, a Panama-flagged cargo ship, after it become wedged across the Suez Canal (Suez Canal Authority/AP) (AP)

To lighten the load, the team says it may have to remove at least some of the ship’s containers and drain the vessel of the water serving as ballast before further dredging the area and then trying again to nudge the ship using tugboats.

Officials had indicated initially they did not want to do that because the unloading itself could take days or weeks.

– Why does it matter?

Over 10% of global trade, including 7% of the world’s oil, passes through the canal.

After the blockage, the price of international benchmark Brent crude shot up some 3% to 63 US dollars a barrel.

Goods passing through the canal are typically moving from east to west.

In addition to oil, liquefied natural gas from the Persian Gulf and furniture, clothes and supermarket basics from China use the canal to avoid taking a circuitous 3,100 mile route around Africa.

Ships anchor in Lake Timsah, Ismailia, halfway through Egypt’s Suez Canal (Sam Magdy/AP) (AP)

Shipping journal Lloyd’s List estimates that the closed waterway is tying up billions of dollars of goods each day the canal is closed — at a time when the coronavirus pandemic is already causing demand in consumer goods to surge.

Not only will deliveries be delayed, but the jam also prevents the return of empty containers back to Asia, exacerbating a container shortage caused by the pandemic’s disruptions to shipping.

“It’s almost like a ketchup bottle,” said Lars Jensen, chief executive of SeaIntelligence Consulting.

“The longer this lasts, the higher risk that we are going to see major congestion problems in the European ports.”

– What is the world’s reaction?

While the real-world consequences of the jam are serious, many also noted the absurdity of the situation in a seemingly endless flood of social media memes.

In one viral post, the gigantic ship was captioned “my tasks”, and the comparatively puny digger “me, dutifully chipping away at my tasks”.

The Ever Given (AP) (AP)

In another, the boat was “your first draft” and the digger “editors”.

Sign up to our newsletter