This satellite image from Planet Labs Inc. shows the cargo ship MV Ever Given stuck in the Suez Canal near Suez, Egypt, Tuesday, March 23, 2021. A cargo container ship that’s among the largest in the world has turned sideways and blocked all traffic in Egypt’s Suez Canal, officials said Wednesday, March 24, 2021, threatening to disrupt a global shipping system already strained by the coronavirus pandemic. (Planet Labs Inc. via AP)

This satellite image from Planet Labs Inc. shows the cargo ship MV Ever Given stuck in the Suez Canal near Suez, Egypt, Tuesday, March 23, 2021. A cargo container ship that’s among the largest in the world has turned sideways and blocked all traffic in Egypt’s Suez Canal, officials said Wednesday, March 24, 2021, threatening to disrupt a global shipping system already strained by the coronavirus pandemic. (Planet Labs Inc. via AP)

Stuck ship in Egypt’s Suez Canal imperils shipping worldwide

Workers hope to avoid offloading containers from the vessel

ISMAILIA, Egypt — A skyscraper-sized cargo ship wedged across Egypt’s Suez Canal further imperiled global shipping Thursday as at least 150 other vessels needing to pass through the crucial waterway idled waiting for the obstruction to clear, authorities said.

The Ever Given, a Panama-flagged ship that carries cargo between Asia and Europe, ran aground Tuesday in the narrow, man-made canal dividing continental Africa from the Sinai Peninsula. In the time since, efforts to free the ship using dredgers, digging and the aid of high tides have yet to push the container vessel aside — affecting billions of dollars’ worth of cargo.

In a sign of the global turmoil the blockage has caused, the ship’s Japanese owner even offered a written apology Thursday for the incident as well.

“We are determined to keep on working hard to resolve this situation as soon as possible,” Shoei Kisen Kaisha Ltd. said. “We would like to apologize to all parties affected by this incident, including the ships travelling and planning to travel through Suez Canal.”

Authorities began work again to free the vessel Thursday morning after halting for the night, an Egyptian canal authority official said. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity as he wasn’t authorized to speak to journalists, said workers hoped to avoid offloading containers from the vessel as it would be a dayslong effort to do so that could extend the closure.

So far, dredgers have tried to clear silt around the massive ship. Tug boats nudged the vessel alongside it, trying to gain momentum. From the shore, at least one backhoe dug into the canal’s sandy banks, suggesting the bow of the ship had plowed into it. However, satellite photos taken Thursday by Planet Labs Inc. and analyzed by The Associated Press showed the vessel still stuck in the same location.

Lt. Gen. Osama Rabei, the head of the canal authority, said navigation through the waterway would remain halted until they refloat the vessel. A team from Boskalis, a Dutch firm specialized in salvaging, arrived at the canal on Thursday, though one of the company’s top officials warned removing the vessel could take “days to weeks.”

“It is, in a manner of speaking, a very heavy whale on the beach,” Boskalis chairman Peter Berdowski told the Dutch current affairs program “Nieuwuur” on Wednesday night. “The ship, with the weight it now has, can’t really be pulled free. You can forget it.”

Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement, the company that manages the Ever Given, said the ship’s 25-member crew are safe and accounted for. Shoei Kisen Kaisha said all the crew came from India.

The ship had two pilots from Egypt’s canal authority aboard the vessel to guide it when the grounding happened around 7:45 a.m. Tuesday, Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement said.

Canal service provider Leth Agencies said at least 150 ships were waiting for the Ever Given to be cleared, including vessels near Port Said on the Mediterranean Sea, Port Suez on the Red Sea and those already stuck in the canal system on Egypt’s Great Bitter Lake.

Cargo ships already behind the Ever Given in the canal will be reversed south back to Port Suez to free the channel, Leth Agencies said. Authorities hope to do the same to the Ever Given when they can free it.

Evergreen Marine Corp., a major Taiwan-based shipping company that operates the ship, said the Ever Given had been overcome by strong winds as it entered the canal, something Egyptian officials earlier said as well. High winds and a sandstorm plagued the area Tuesday, with winds gusting as much as 50 kilometres (30 miles) per hour.

An initial report suggested the ship suffered a power blackout before the incident, something Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement denied Thursday.

“Initial investigations rule out any mechanical or engine failure as a cause of the grounding,” the company said.

In Japan, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato told reporters Thursday that the Suez Canal is part of a crucial international sea lane, and that the Japanese government was gathering information and working with local authorities.

The closure could affect oil and gas shipments to Europe from the Mideast, which rely on the canal to avoid sailing around Africa. The price of international benchmark Brent crude stood at over $63 a barrel Thursday.

Overall, famed shipping journal Lloyd’s List estimates each day the Suez Canal is closed disrupts over $9 billion worth of goods that should be passing through the waterway. A quarter of all Suez Canal traffic a day comes from container ships like the Ever Given, the journal said.

“Blocking something like the Suez Canal really sets in motion a number of dominos toppling each other over,” said Lars Jensen, chief executive of Denmark-based SeaIntelligence Consulting. “The effect is not only going to be the simple, immediate one with cargo being delayed over the next few weeks, but will actually have repercussions several months down the line for the supply chain.”

The Ever Given, built in 2018 with a length of nearly 400 metres (a quarter mile) and a width of 59 metres (193 feet), is among the largest cargo ships in the world. It can carry some 20,000 containers at a time. It previously had been at ports in China before heading toward Rotterdam in the Netherlands.

Opened in 1869, the Suez Canal 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 of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi completed a major expansion of the canal, allowing it to accommodate the world’s largest vessels. However, the Ever Given ran aground south of that new portion of the canal.

The stranding Tuesday marks just the latest to affect mariners amid the pandemic. Hundreds of thousands have been stuck aboard vessels due to the pandemic. Meanwhile, demands on shipping have increased, adding to the pressure on tired sailors.

By The Associated Press

Transportation

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