On Tuesday, one of the world’s largest cargo ships wedged itself sideways across Egypt’s busy Suez Canal. No other vessels can squeeze by. The awkward situation is disrupting an already strained global shipping system.
Opened in 1869, the Suez Canal provides a crucial link for oil, natural gas, and cargo being shipping from East to West. The man-made canal divides continental Africa from the Sinai Peninsula. Around 10% of the world’s trade flows through the waterway, and it 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. The enlargement allowed it to accommodate the world’s largest vessels. (See “Suez Canal Extension.”)
The MV (motor vessel) Ever Given is a Panama-flagged container ship that carries cargo between Asia and Europe. The vessel became grounded Tuesday in the single-lane part of the waterway before the new wider portion of the canal.
The Ever Given was headed to Rotterdam in the Netherlands before getting stuck in the canal. At nearly a quarter mile long and 193 feet wide, the boat is among the largest cargo ships in the world. It can carry about 20,000 shipping containers at once.
The Ever Given’s bow is touching the Suez Canal’s eastern wall. Its stern appears lodged against the western wall according to satellite data. Data also show several tug boats surrounding the ship, likely attempting to push it the right way.
An image posted to Instagram by someone on another waiting cargo ship depicts the Ever Given wedged across the canal as shown in the satellite data. A backhoe appears to be digging into the sand bank under its bow in an effort to free it.
One anonymous Egyptian official says tugboats hope to refloat the ship—and that the operation would take at least two days.
Accounts differ about what caused the Ever Given to turn sideways in the canal. GAC, a global shipping company, describe the ship as suffering “a blackout while transiting in a northerly direction.”
Evergreen Marine Corporation operates the vessel. Officials say strong winds overcame the Ever Given as it entered the Suez Canal from the Red Sea.
Egyptian forecasters say high winds and a sandstorm plagued the area Tuesday, with winds gusting to 31 mph.
“All crew are safe and accounted for,” says Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement, which manages the Ever Given. “There have been no reports of injuries or pollution.” The management company denies the ship ever lost power.
The situation could affect global shipping moving between the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea, warns Salvatore R. Mercogliano. He is a former merchant mariner and associate professor of history at North Carolina’s Campbell University.
“Every day, 50 vessels on average go through that canal, so the closing of the canal means no vessels are transiting north and south,” Mercogliano says. “Every day the canal is closed . . . container ships and tankers are not delivering food, fuel, and manufactured goods to Europe, and goods are not being exported from Europe to the Far East.”
Tuesday’s incident marks the latest affecting mariners amid the global pandemic. Hundreds of thousands have been stuck aboard vessels due to the virus. Meanwhile, shipping demands have increased, adding to the burden on tired sailors, Mercogliano says. “[The pressure is] because of the breakneck pace of global shipping right now, and shipping is on a very tight schedule.”
Helped by the peak of high tide, a fleet of tugboats has managed to wrench the bow of the Ever Given from the Suez Canal’s sandy bank. The Monday, March 29, rescue unclogged one of the world’s most vital maritime arteries after nearly a week.
(The cargo ship Ever Given sits with its bow stuck into the wall of the Suez Canal on Wednesday, March 24, 2021. Suez Canal Authority via AP)