Suez Canal Stuck Ship Freed
The mammoth cargo ship blocking one of the world’s most vital maritime arteries was wrenched from the shoreline and set partially afloat again early on Monday morning, raising hopes that traffic could soon resume in the Suez Canal and limit the economic fallout of the disruption.
Salvage teams, working on both land and water for five days and nights, were ultimately assisted by forces more powerful than any of the machines that rushed to the scene to assist in the rescue: the moon and the tides.
As water levels swelled overnight, the hours spent digging and excavating millions of tons of earth around the Ever Green paid dividends as the ship slowly regained buoyancy, according to officials.
While shipping officials and the Egyptian authorities cautioned that the complicated operation was still underway, they expressed increasing confidence the ship would soon be completely free.
The stern was now some 300 feet from shore, according to the Suez Canal Authority. While the ship was moving, what remained unclear was if the bulbous bow — the protruding bulb at the bow — is totally clear of dirt and debris.
The next high tide will peak at 11:42 a.m. local time, and crews will continue maneuvers as the water rises, according to the authority.
Images on social media showed tugboat crews celebrating their progress in the predawn hours.
It appeared to be the culmination of one of the largest and most intense salvage operations in modern history, with the smooth functioning of the entire global trading system hanging in the balance.
Each day the canal was blocked put global supply chains another day closer to a full-blown crisis.
Vessels packed with the world’s goods — including cars, oil, livestock and laptops — usually flow through the waterway with ease, supplying much of the globe as they traverse the quickest path from Asia and the Middle East to Europe and the East Coast of the United States.
With concerns the salvage operation could take weeks, some ships decided not to wait, U-turning to take the long way around the southern tip of Africa, a voyage that could add weeks to the journey and cost more than $26,000 a day in fuel costs.
The army of machine operators, engineers, tugboat captains, and other salvage operators knew they were in a race against time.
Late Saturday, tugboat drivers sounded their horns in celebration of the most visible sign of progress since the ship ran aground late Tuesday.
The 220,000-ton ship moved. It did not go far — just two degrees, or about 100 feet, according to shipping officials. That came on top of progress from Friday, when canal officials said dredgers had managed to dig out the rear of the ship, freeing its rudder.
By Saturday afternoon, they had dredged 18 meters down into the canal’s eastern bank. But officials cautioned that the ship’s bow remained firmly planted in the soil and that the operation still faced significant hurdles.
The company that oversees the ship’s operations and crew, Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement, said 11 tugboats were helping, with two joining the struggle on Sunday. Several dredgers, including a specialized suction dredger that can extract 2,000 cubic meters of material per hour, dug around the vessel’s bow, the company said.
The ship’s manager said that in addition to the tugboats and dredgers, high-capacity pumps will draw water from the vessel’s ballast tanks to lighten the ship.
Salvagers were determined to free the vessel as the spring tide rolled in, raising the canal’s water level as much as 18 inches, analysts and shipping agents said.
It was a delicate mission, with crews trying to move the ship without unbalancing it or breaking it apart.
With the Ever Given sagging in the middle, its bow and stern both caught in positions for which they were not designed, the hull is vulnerable to stress and cracks, according to experts. Just as every high tide brought hope the ship could be released, each low tide puts new stresses on the vessel.
Teams of divers have been inspecting the hull throughout the operation and have found no damage, officials said. It would need to be inspected again once it was completely free.
And it would take some time to also inspect the canal itself to ensure safe passage. And with hundreds of ships backed up on either side, despite promises from the authorities to quickly clear the backlog, it will probably take some time before operations return to normal.
From the deck of a tugboat in the Suez Canal, where the Egyptian authorities allowed journalists to glimpse the salvage operation for the first time on Saturday, the Ever Given looked like a fallen skyscraper, lights ablaze.
Three boats that barely reached halfway up the word EVERGREEN painted on the ship’s side, for its Taiwan-based operator, had nosed up to its starboard side, keeping it stable.
A powerful tugboat sat near the ship’s stern, waiting for the next attempt to push and pull it out.
Together, the armada of tugboats — their engines churning with the combined power of tens of thousands of horses — have been pushing and pulling at the Ever Given for days.
Finally, before dawn on Monday, the ship broke free from the shore and was partially refloated — a moment both shipping and Egyptian officials said marked the beginning of the end of the saga.
Once fully afloat, the ship can be easily controlled by tugboats and safely pushed out of the way.
It was the culmination of a drama that had been building for days, where optimism seemed to rise and fall like the tides themselves.
Late Saturday, there was a brief celebration when the tugboats managed to move the 1,300-foot ship. The tugboats let the horns blow, hopeful that they could build on their progress when the high tide returned on Sunday, when the increased water level could help the ship break free.
With the ship too heavy for tugboats alone, the effort on the water was being aided by teams on land, where cranes that look like playthings in the shadow of the hulking cargo ship have been scooping mountains of earth from the area where the ship’s bow and stern are wedged tight.
As the dredgers worked, a team of eight Dutch salvage experts and naval architects overseeing the operation were surveying the ship and the seabed and creating a computer model to help it work around the vessel without damaging it, said Capt. Nick Sloane, a South African salvage master who led the operation to right the Costa Concordia, the cruise ship that capsized in 2012 off the coast of Italy.
If the tugboats, dredgers and pumps were not able to get the job done, they would have been joined by a head-spinning array of specialized vessels and machines requiring perhaps hundreds of workers: small tankers to siphon off the ship’s fuel, the tallest cranes in the world to unload containers one by one and, if no cranes are tall enough or near enough, heavy-duty helicopters that can pick up containers of up to 20 tons — though no one has said where the cargo would go. (A full 40-foot container can weigh up to 40 tons.)
All this because, to put it simply: “This is a very big ship. This is a very big problem,” said Richard Meade, the editor in chief of Lloyd’s List, a maritime intelligence publication based in London.
“I don’t think there’s any question they’ve got everything they need,” he said. “It’s just a question of, it’s a very big problem.”
With hopes rising that the partial refloating of the Ever Given means the Suez Canal will soon be reopen for business, shipping analysts cautioned that it will take time — perhaps days — for the hundreds of ships now waiting for passage to continue their journeys.
Shipping analysts estimated the colossal traffic jam was holding up nearly $10 billion in trade every day.
“All global retail trade moves in containers, or 90 percent of it,” said Alan Murphy, the founder of Sea-Intelligence, a maritime data and analysis firm. “Name any brand name, and they will be stuck on one of those vessels.”
The Syrian government said over the weekend that it will begin rationing the use of fuel after the closure of the Suez Canal delayed the delivery of a critical shipment of oil to the war-torn nation.
And in Lebanon, which in recent months has been suffering blackouts amid an economic and political crisis, local media were reporting that the country’s shaky fuel supply risks further disruption if the blockage continues.
With the backlog of ships now stuck outside the canal growing to over 300 on Sunday, the threat to the oil supplies in those two countries was an early indication of how quickly the disruption to the smooth functioning of global trade could ripple outward and cause real world pain.
Virtually every container ship making the journey from factories in Asia to consumer markets in Europe passes through the channel. So do tankers laden with oil and natural gas.
The shutdown of the canal is affecting as much as 15 percent of the world’s container shipping capacity, according to Moody’s Investor Service, leading to delays at ports around the globe. Tankers carrying 9.8 million barrels of crude, about a tenth of a day’s global consumption, are now waiting to enter the canal, estimates Kpler, a firm that tracks petroleum shipping.
The Syrian Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources said the blockage of the canal had “hindered the oil supplies to Syria and delayed arrival of a tanker carrying oil and oil derivations to Syria.”
Rationing was needed, the ministry said in a statement, “in order to guarantee the continued supply of basic services to Syrians such as bakeries, hospitals, water stations, communication centers, and other vital institutions.”
Cnes 2020, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Khaled Elfiqi/EPA, via Shutterstock
Suez Canal Authority, via Associated Press
EPA, via Shutterstock
Pictures of the ship, from satellite views to those on the ground, reveal the true scale of the issue.
The operators of the Ever Given have said that the vessel ran aground because of the high winds of a sandstorm. While shipping experts said that wind might have been a factor, they also suggested that human error may have come into play.
Egyptian officials offered a similar assessment at a news conference on Saturday.
“A significant incident like this is usually the result of many reasons: The weather was one reason, but maybe there was a technical error, or a human error,” said Lt. Gen. Osama Rabie, chief of Egypt’s Suez Canal Authority.
The ship’s operators had said this week that its stacked containers had essentially acted like a giant sail amid the sandstorm.
But villagers in nearby Manshiyet Rugola noted that other ships in the same convoy had passed through the canal without incident. So had previous ships in previous storms, they pointed out.
“We’ve seen worse winds,” said Ahmad al-Sayed, 19, a security guard, “but nothing like that ever happened before.”
Shipping experts have asked the same question.
“I am highly questioning, why was it the only one that went aground?” said Capt. Paul Foran, a marine consultant who has worked on other salvage operations. “But they can talk about all that later. Right now, they just have to get that beast out of the canal.”
General Rabie said that ship captains are asked to keep any material that might be required for an investigation. He noted that 12 northbound ships had passed through the canal ahead of the Ever Given that day, and another 30 ships had traveled through from the opposite direction.
Last year, General Rabie said, 18,840 ships had traversed the canal without an accident.