More tugs join effort to refloat ship blocking Suez Canal

Egypt’s president orders preparations for the possible removal of some of the ship’s cargo as teams struggle to free it.

Stranded ship Ever Given, one of the world's largest container ships, is seen after it ran aground in the Suez Canal [EPA]

A massive container ship remained wedged in Egypt’s Suez Canal on Sunday, blocking the busy waterway as major shippers divert their boats out of fear the vessel may take even longer to free.

As extra tug boats steamed in to assist with salvage efforts, experts were pinning hopes on a Sunday high tide to help dislodge the ship.

Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has ordered preparations for the possible removal of some of the ship’s cargo to help refloat it, SCA Chairman Osama Rabie told Egypt’s Extra News.

Any operation to lighten the ship’s load would not start before Monday, an SCA source said.

The 400-metre (440-yard) long Ever Given – a Panama-flagged, Japanese-owned ship that carries cargo between Asia and Europe – became jammed diagonally across a southern section of the canal in high winds more than five days ago, halting shipping traffic in one of the world’s busiest waterways.

As of Sunday, more than 300 boats were waiting to transit the canal, including dozens of container ships, bulk carriers and liquefied natural gas (LNG) or liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) vessels.

“There are positive indicators from yesterday and the day before yesterday,” Rabie told Egyptian state TV.

“The rudder was not moving and it is now moving, the propeller is working now, there was no water underneath the bow, and now there is water under it, and yesterday there was a four-metre deviation in the bow and the stern.”

However, two SCA sources told Reuters news agency that a mass of rock had been found at the bow of the ship, complicating salvage efforts.

A man walks in a field in view of the Ever Given container ship in the Suez Canal [Khaled Elfiqi/EPA]

Complex, lengthy process

Rescue workers from the SCA and a team from Dutch firm Smit Salvage have been weighing whether some of the Ever Given’s 18,300 containers will need to be removed by crane in order to refloat it.

Taking containers off the ship likely would add even more days to the canal’s closure, something authorities have been desperately trying to avoid. It also would require a crane and other equipment that have yet to arrive.

Experts have warned that such a process could be complex and lengthy.

“We’re dividing the day into two halves, 12 hours for dredgers and 12 hours for tugs, because not all times are suitable for tugs due to the tide,” said Rabie, adding that 14 tug boats were being deployed.

Later on Sunday, Rabie said the SCA is considering discounts for vessels affected by the blockage.

He also told Al Arabiya TV that the canal was losing $13-14m in revenue daily after halting traffic due to the grounded ship and that 369 vessels were waiting to transit the canal

About 15 percent of world shipping traffic transits the Suez Canal.

Shipping rates for oil product tankers nearly doubled after the ship became stranded, and the blockage has disrupted global supply chains, threatening costly delays for companies already dealing with COVID-19 restrictions.

Syria has begun rationing the distribution of fuel in the war-torn country amid concerns of delays of shipments arriving amid the blockage.

Spencer Welch, vice president of oil markets and downstream consulting at IHS Markit, told Al Jazeera that some refineries usually have around a week’s worth of spare crude.

“If we take an oil refinery in the Mediterranean which is using crude oil coming from the Middle East, that refinery will typically keep around seven days worth of spare crude in a tank for delays. It is now estimated that it could take two weeks to clear the blockage in the Suez Canal.”

If the blockage drags on, more shippers may decide to reroute their cargoes around the Cape of Good Hope, adding about two weeks to journeys and extra fuel costs.

Mediterranean Shipping Co, the world’s second-largest shipping company, said it already had rerouted at least 11 ships around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope to avoid the canal. It turned back two other ships and said it expected “some missed sailings as a result of this incident”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies