The tugboats that could: Ever Given freed from Suez Canal

The Ever Given, the cargo ship stuck in the Suez Canal for nearly a week, has been dislodged by a flotilla of tugboats and is moving through the canal once more. About 12% of global trade by volume goes through the waterway under normal circumstances.

Mohamed Elshahed/AP
Ever Given, a Panama-flagged cargo ship, is seen blocking the Suez Canal almost a week after it got stuck sideways in the crucial waterway, March 29, 2021. It was freed later in the day by a flotilla of tugboats.

Salvage teams on Monday set free a colossal container ship that has halted global trade through Egypt’s Suez Canal, bringing an end to a crisis that for nearly a week had clogged one of the world’s most vital maritime arteries.

Helped by the peak of high tide, a flotilla of tugboats managed to wrench the bulbous bow of the skyscraper-sized Ever Given from the canal’s sandy bank, where it had been firmly lodged since last Tuesday.

After hauling the fully laden 220,000-ton vessel over the canal bank, the salvage team was pulling the vessel toward the Great Bitter Lake, a wide stretch of water halfway between the north and south end of the canal, where the ship will undergo technical inspection, canal authorities said.

Delays in freeing the mammoth container ship stuck in the canal had highlighted still more pressure points in global trade, a year after supply chains were disrupted by the pandemic.

The ship had been lodged in a single-lane stretch of the canal for nearly a week, blocking traffic through the critical trade gateway. Earlier, it was feared the Panama-flagged, Japanese-owned vessel might be stuck for weeks.

Economists say the Ever Given’s disruption of shipping through the Suez Canal probably won’t leave lasting disruptions to global trade, and is unlikely to derail global growth this year as more people get COVID-19 vaccines and economies reopen. But it’s another wake-up call for companies that have set up their business to rely on supply chains with little room for error, said William Lee, chief economist at the Milken Institute.

“This is a warning about how vulnerable our supply chains are and how the just-in-time inventory techniques that have been so popular have to be rethought,” he said.

“The shortages and the supply chain shortages that cause assembly lines to shut down – that will have a greater impact,” Mr. Lee added.

Many countries got a harsh lesson in those realities last year when commerce was disrupted in myriad ways after new coronavirus outbreaks began in China, the world’s factory floor.

Consumers everywhere soon found that ordering online was an adventure in the unknown, with many factories shut down and trade between Chinese provinces stalled. Obtaining supplies of medicines and vital personal protective equipment such as face masks and other medical supplies became challenging, and sometimes impossible.

Earlier this week ships were detouring around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa to avoid the canal. But using that roundabout passage slows the arrival of containers at their destinations and when they can be emptied and then refilled with other goods bound somewhere else. That can drive up costs – price increases that eventually reach consumers.

About 12% of global trade by volume goes through the Suez Canal, but it accounts for 30% of the world’s daily shipping container freight. That makes it the most important conduit for trade between Europe and Asia. Some 19,000 vessels passed through the canal last year, according to official figures.

Nearly 10% of oil shipments and 8% of global liquid natural gas moves through the Suez Canal, according to the United States Energy Information Administration.

Much of the traffic involves the transportation of crude oil from the Middle East to Europe and the U.S. It’s also become an important link for Russian oil to Asia.

With the Ever Given visible from town, the sleepy farming village of Amer, where farmers eke out a living tending to small fields and livestock, was thrust into the global limelight while the ship was stuck. Residents were rooting for canal authorities as they battled to dislodge the vessel, and journalists had been visiting the village, in part to get a better view of the vessel.

“It’s there, standing like the mountain,” said one villager.

Video released Monday by the Suez Canal Authority showed the Ever Given being escorted by the tugboats that helped free it, each sounding off their horns in jubilation after nearly a week of chaos.

“We pulled it off!” said Peter Berdowski, CEO of Boskalis, the salvage firm hired to extract the Ever Given, in a statement. “I am excited to announce that our team of experts, working in close collaboration with the Suez Canal Authority, successfully refloated the Ever Given … thereby making free passage through the Suez Canal possible again.”

It remained unclear when traffic through the canal would return to normal. At least 367 vessels, carrying everything from crude oil to cattle, have piled up on either end of the canal, waiting to pass. Data firm Refinitiv estimated it could take more than 10 days to clear the backlog of ships. 

The salvage operation successfully relied on tugs and dredgers alone, allowing authorities to avoid the far more complex and lengthy task of lightening the vessel by offloading its 20,000 containers.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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