No timeline given for freeing huge ship blocking Suez Canal

New attempt to free vessel under way Saturday as blockage causes huge traffic jam and forces ships to reroute around Africa.

The MV Ever Given, longer than four football fields, has been wedged diagonally across the canal since Tuesday [Maxar Technologies/Handout via Reuters]

A giant container ship remains stuck sideways in Egypt’s Suez Canal for a fifth day as authorities prepare to make new attempts to free the vessel and reopen a crucial east-west waterway for global shipping.

The Ever Given, a Panama-flagged ship that carries cargo between Asia and Europe, ran aground Tuesday in the narrow canal that runs between Africa and the Sinai Peninsula.

The massive vessel got stuck in a single-lane stretch of the canal, about six kilometres (3.7 miles) north of the southern entrance, near the city of Suez.

Efforts to dislodge the ship had allowed its stern and rudder to move on Saturday, but it remained unclear when it could be refloated, the head of the canal authority told a press conference Saturday in Suez.

“The ship’s stern began to move towards Suez, and that was a positive sign until 11pm (21:00 GMT) at night, but the tide fell significantly and we stopped,” Osama Rabie told journalists.

He said they could not lay out a set timetable for when the ship might be dislodged but that he remained hopeful that a dredging operation could free the ship without having to resort to lighten it by removing its cargo.

Rabei also said that 14 tug boats were now operating, while rescue operations managed to dig enough into the soil to free the rudder and the propeller.

“We expect that at any time the ship could slide and move from the spot it is in,” he added.

A maritime traffic jam grew to around 321 vessels near Port Said on the Mediterranean Sea, Port Suez on the Red Sea and in the canal system on Egypt’s Great Bitter Lake, Rabei said.

He said authorities had not ruled out that “technical or human errors” could be behind the grounding of the vessel.

“Strong winds and weather factors were not the main reasons for the ship’s grounding, there may have been technical or human errors,” he also said.

Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly on Saturday thanked foreign partners for offers to help refloat the ship.

A maritime traffic jam grew to around 321 vessels near Port Said on the Mediterranean Sea, Port Suez on the Red Sea and in the canal system on Egypt’s Great Bitter Lake [Suez Canal/AFP]

‘Complex’ operation

Egypt’s Suez Canal Authority said the Ever Given veered off course and ran aground on Tuesday when strong winds whipped up a sandstorm that affected visibility.

The blockage has caused a huge traffic jam for more than 200 ships at both ends of the 193km (120-mile) long canal and major delays in the delivery of oil and other products.

Shoei Kisen said in a statement on Saturday that the company has considered removing its containers to get the weight off the vessel, but that it would be a very difficult operation. The company said it may still consider that option if the continuing refloating efforts fail.

“It’s a complex technical operation” that will require several attempts to free the vessel, Lieutenant General Osama Rabie, head of the Suez Canal Authority, said in a statement.

Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement (BSM), the ship’s technical manager firm, said on Friday that an attempt to refloat the vessel had failed.

“The focus is now on dredging to remove sand and mud from around the port side of the vessel’s bow,” BSM said.

Smit Salvage, a Dutch firm that has worked on some of the most famous wrecks of recent years, confirmed there would be “two additional tugs” arriving by Sunday to assist, it added.

There had been “no reports of pollution or cargo damage and initial investigations rule out any mechanical or engine failure as a cause of the grounding”.

Crews had been seen working through the night, using a large dredging machine under floodlights.

But the vessel with gross tonnage of 219,000 and deadweight of 199,000 has yet to budge.

The Suez Canal Authority has said it welcomes international assistance. The White House said it has offered to help Egypt reopen the canal. “We have equipment and capacity that most countries don’t have and we’re seeing what we can do and what help we can be,” US President Joe Biden told reporters.

The Egyptian government has agreed to “an offer of help”, CNN reported on Friday, adding that the US Navy in the region plans to send “an assessment team of dredging experts to the Suez Canal as soon as Saturday”.

‘Far longer route’

“Shipping companies are being forced to confront the spectre of taking the far longer route around the Cape of Good Hope to get to Europe or the east coast of North America,” said Lloyd’s List, a shipping data and news company.

“The first container ship to do this is Evergreen’s Ever Greet … a sistership to Ever Given,” it said, noting that the route can take up to an additional 12 days.

About 10 percent of world trade flows through the canal, which is particularly crucial for transporting oil. The closure also could affect oil and gas shipments to Europe from the Middle East.

Oil markets are absorbing the disruption for now, analyst Toril Bosoni said.

“Oil inventories have been coming down but they are still relatively ample,” she told The Associated Press, adding that she believes the effect might be more pronounced in the tanker sector than in the oil industry.

“We are not losing any oil supply but it will tie up tankers for longer if they have to go around” the tip of Africa, she said.

Lloyd’s List said data indicated 213 vessels were now stalled at either end of the canal, which links the Mediterranean and the Red Sea.

The blockage was holding up an estimated $9.6bn worth of cargo each day between Asia and Europe, it said.

“Rough calculations suggest westbound traffic is worth around $5.1bn daily while eastbound traffic is worth $4.5bn.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies