Every day some 50 ships cross the Suez Canal, the waterway cut between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. They are large ships: around 10% of world maritime trade passes through the Suez. But not Wednesday.
Indeed, a ship called Ever Given, en route to Rotterdam, the Netherlands from China, is stuck between the sandy banks of the canal. The ship, operated by Taiwan-based Evergreen Group, is one of the largest in the world: as long as four football fields, as wide as the wingspan of a Boeing 747, and thanks to the 200,000 tonnes of containers stacked at edge, like height of 12 floors.
It could have been there for a while. Getting off a gigantic expedition ship is not easy, experts say. The Suez Canal Authority, the Egyptian body that owns and operates the canal, has not yet indicated when it expects traffic to resume.
Meanwhile, at least 34 ships carrying 379,000 20-foot freight containers were unable to cross the canal in either direction as of Wednesday afternoon, according to logistics software company Project44. “It’s a pretty big deal” for global trade, says Henry Byers, maritime and global trade analyst at logistics data company FreightWaves.
It is very unusual – if not unheard of – for ships to be stuck in the Suez Canal like this, says Captain Morgan McManus, who is the captain of the training ship at the State University of New York Maritime College and has at least crossed the canal half a dozen times. In the rare event that a vessel loses power or control in the canal, it lands on the sandy shore, where it is inspected or repaired. In the meantime, other smaller ships could pass.
Not the never given. BSM, the ship’s technical director, said Wednesday that “high winds” had pushed the ship perpendicular to the banks of the canal, the towering stacks of containers on board acting like a gigantic sail. Official reports outlining the causes of the incident will likely not be available for weeks, if not a year, but BSM says no one was injured. Photos from the scene show the bow of Ever Given stuck in the sand, as an excavator – overshadowed by the container ship towering over it – attempts to dig it up. “It’s like shooting a BB pistol at a freight train,” McManus says.
The Ever Given rescue will likely include more engines. Freighters have huge ballast tanks, compartments filled with water to keep ships stable. Crews will likely move water in the bow, says Captain John Konrad, founder of the maritime trade publication gCaptain.com. Then, at high tide, high-powered tugs will attempt to push or pull the vessel out of position. At least 10 tugs were involved in rescue operations on Wednesday.
Yes this not working, it’s time for the cranes. A barge-mounted crane could remove the containers from the 200,000-ton vessel, to lighten the load and facilitate maneuvering. But the photos suggest that there may be few places on the riverbank to safely place a crane or unloaded containers. “It would be very difficult to do,” says McManus. “As they always say: things are happening in the worst possible places, and it’s pretty bad.”
BSM said Wednesday evening it had deployed dredging equipment to clean up the sand and mud around Ever Given. In 2016, a Chinese container ship got stuck in the Elbe near the port of Hamburg, Germany. It took six days, 12 tugs, two dredges and a well-timed spring tide to release it.
In the meantime, crews will need to watch for cracks in the ship’s hull, which can occur when the ship rubs or is punctured by rocks. Attempts to free the vessel could also damage it. “The ship is designed to float in water, not on land, so different pressure points on different parts of the ship could damage the bow,” McManus explains. One of the worst possible outcomes: Fuel could leak from the vessel into the canal, causing time-consuming and expensive clean-up.