One of the world’s key shipping canals is blocked by one of the world’s largest ships at sea, with millions of dollars in trade delayed amid frantic efforts to refloat it.
Since Tuesday, the Japanese-owned Ever Given cargo ship, operated by a Taiwanese company, Evergreen Marine, has been wedged at an angle in Egypt’s Suez Canal.
The trapped 200,000-ton vessel — stuck in a position one industry expert compared to that of an “enormous beached whale” — has caused a traffic jam of cargo ships waiting to make it through, with ripples felt across world trade.
A total of 321 ships were waiting for the Suez Canal to be cleared as of Saturday, according to the Suez Canal Authority.
Here’s what happened.
What is the Suez Canal, and who controls it?
The 120-mile-long Suez Canal is a man-made waterway linking the Red and Mediterranean seas. It is owned by Egypt.
When it opened in 1869, the canal increased the ease of global trade by offering a route that circumvented the Cape of Good Hope in Africa. It remains crucial to international trade, including for the oil sector.
In 1956, Israel, Britain and France invaded Egypt in an attempt to seize control of the strategic waterway after the country nationalized it. Their forces later withdrew.
Egypt launched a major and costly renovation of the canal in 2015.
How did the vessel get stuck?
Cargo ship navigation through the canal is a carefully planned operation. More than 50 ships passed through it on average each day last year, according to figures from the Suez Canal Authority.
Although the expansion completed in 2015 provided two separate shipping lanes for some parts of the canal, the area near the Gulf of Suez where the Ever Given got stuck on Tuesday is just one 984-foot wide lane.
The Ever Given is one of the largest ships in operation, at 193 feet wide and 1,312 feet long, exactly the maximum length allowed in the canal. Larger than the Eiffel Tower, the ship would take up much of the space in Washington’s Tidal Basin.
During a sandstorm this week, the ship was battered by heavy winds and the large number of containers it was handling may have acted as a sail, forcing it off course to become wedged sideways across the canal.
Lt. Gen. Osama Rabie, head of the Suez Canal Authority, told reporters Saturday that authorities were leaving open the possibility of “a technical error or a human error” and noted that the probe was ongoing.
Typically, Suez-based pilots guide the ship through the canal. Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement, which is responsible for managing the ship’s crew and maintenance, has said that two pilots were on board during the incident. The 25 crew members are all reported safe.
What’s being done to get it out?
Teams have been brought in from around the world to try to figure out how to move the ship. A U.S. Navy team is expected to join the effort in the coming days.
Estimates as to how long the process could take vary, ranging from days to weeks. Tugboats are working to try to shift the ship, while dredgers are trying to move the sand and silt at the bottom of the canal to ease its path. There also are hopes that tidal movement in the canal could help refloat the ship.
The chairman of the Suez Canal Authority said 9,000 tons of ballast water had been removed from the ship.
Dredging is focused on the sand and silt underwater, where the ship’s hull is lodged. Dutch marine services company Boskalis said its subsidiary Smit Salvage is among those that have sent dredging vessels to the scene.
Ragui Assaad, a professor at the University of Minnesota who focuses on the Egyptian economy, said it would not be a simple task.
“I think part of the issue is that the canal is not that wide and so the ship actually hits both edges when it goes sideways,” Assaad said, adding that the sides and base of the canal were “soft sand” that allows the ship to sink into them.
As part of the process, the ship could be made lighter. But without specialist heavy machinery like cranes nearby, that may be a time-consuming process. Some experts have cautioned that removing the load could run the risk of damaging the boat or unbalancing it, further wedging it into the sand.
How has the stranding affected international trade?
The longer the Suez Canal remains blocked, or partially blocked, the more painful the financial repercussions are expected to be. Oil prices have shot up and down since the stranding.
About 13 percent of world trade passes through the Suez Canal, according to Allianz, an investment firm. Even a return to normal operations in a week or so would leave supply chains struggling to work through the accumulated backlog.
“So the knock-on impact is not going to be measured in days or weeks,” said Douglas Kent, executive vice president of strategy and alliances at the Association for Supply Chain Management. “It’s going to be measured in months.”
Vessel traffic at the Suez Canal after blockage
Data from March 26 from 6:46 a.m. to 8:43 a.m. UTC.
Lloyd’s List, a shipping journal, estimated that each day the canal is closed, some $9 billion worth of goods are affected, the Associated Press reported. Delays at the canal will affect unloading schedules at other ports and docks, which can delay goods en route to producers, suppliers and consumers.
“Once you open the canal, it’s like ketchup out of a ketchup bottle,” Lars Jensen, the CEO of Denmark-based SeaIntelligence Consulting, told The Washington Post.
Alternative route from Asia to Europe
With the Suez Canal closed, ships either wait or take a longer route to Europe, sailing around the entire African continent.
Ships forced to take an alternative route around Africa and the Cape of Good Hope face lengthy delays, adding around 15 days to their journey.
More shipping companies appear to be losing confidence that the canal would reopen soon. Lloyd’s List Intelligence, a maritime analysis firm, tweeted Friday that vessel-tracking data showed “container lines are starting to take the long route around southern Africa on the backhaul to Asia, rather than wait for the Suez Canal to reopen.”
Has this happened before?
The canal has long been at the center of geopolitical tussling, most notably its dramatic closing in 1956that saw British, French and Israeli forces enter Egypt in a bid to overthrow President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who sought to nationalize the Suez Canal Company. The event turned into a humiliating defeat after the United States withheld its support for the invading forces.
The canal was later closed for eight years after the Arab-Israeli War, before being reopened in 1975. There have been other smaller blockages more recently: In 2017, a Japanese vessel carrying containers became blocked in the canal after it had a mechanical issue. Tugboats and Egyptian authorities, however, were able to kick-start the ship within a couple of hours.
Written by Miriam Berger, Júlia Ledur and Adam Taylor | The Washington Post