How does a cargo ship get stuck in the Suez Canal? And what now?

Authorities, engineers, and onlookers had never seen anything like it: a cargo ship the size of a skyscraper lodged in the Suez Canal, blocking all traffic. Teams of experts are trying everything to free the ship, creating a scene that is equal parts serious and absurd. 

Suez Canal Authority/AP
Lt. Gen. Ossama Rabei, head of the Suez Canal Authority, investigates the problem with the Ever Given, a cargo ship wedged across the Suez Canal that has trapped 150 ships on either side. Over 10% of global trade passes through the vital waterway.

A giant backhoe and a squadron of tugboats look minuscule against the cargo ship’s bulk, demonstrating the enormity of the challenge at hand: freeing the wedged, skyscraper-sized container ship that has blocked the entire width of the Suez Canal and created a major traffic jam on one of the world’s most crucial trade routes.

The tugs and diggers toiled on Thursday as over 150 vessels carrying goods to destinations across the world on tight schedules remained trapped on either end of the canal, which links the Mediterranean and Red Seas.

Over its 150-year history, Egypt’s Suez Canal has seen wars and crises – but nothing quite like the stranding of the Ever Given.

How did this happen?

That remains murky. The vessel entered the canal from the Red Sea on Tuesday morning and ran aground 45 minutes later.

The ship’s operator and Egyptian officials blamed winds gusting as much as 30 miles per hour, along with a sandstorm sweeping the area.

Cargo ships have grown in recent years to take on more containers as fuel prices have risen because big boats burn less fuel per container moved. Some have wondered if the ultra-large size of the Ever Given was a factor.

While the supersize of ships can increase their risk of running aground in the Suez Canal, boats just as big buffeted by winds just as strong have passed through the waterway without incident before.

Instead, it’s likely that “a combination of factors” was at play, said Ian Woods, a marine cargo lawyer and partner with the firm Clyde & Co.

“There’s the exposure to the elements, potential for a loss of power, potential for steering problems,” Mr. Woods said. “We’d expect a full investigation.”

The obstruction could prove embarrassing for Egypt, where the waterway long has been a symbol of national pride. President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi poured $8.2 billion into a lavish expansion of the canal that was unveiled in 2015. However, the Ever Given got stuck just south of that new section.

How will they fix this? 

So far, dredgers and tugboats haven’t been able to free the ship. An expert salvage team, whose job is to respond to boat-related disasters, flew from the Netherlands to the canal on Thursday to join the efforts.

Already, it seems the ship’s massive weight, some 220,000 tons, could make it impossible to dislodge and float. To lighten the load, the team says it may have to remove at least some of the ship’s containers and drain the vessel of the water serving as ballast before further dredging the area and then trying again to nudge the ship using tugboats.

Officials had indicated initially they didn’t want to do that because the unloading itself could take days or weeks.

Why does it matter?

Over 10% of global trade, including 7% of the world’s oil, passes through the canal. After the blockage, the price of international benchmark Brent crude shot up some 3% to $63 a barrel.

Goods passing through the canal are typically moving from east to west. In addition to oil, liquified natural gas from the Persian Gulf and furniture, clothes, and supermarket basics from China use the canal to avoid taking a circuitous 3,1000-mile route around Africa.

Shipping journal Lloyd’s List estimates that the closed waterway is tying up billions of dollars of goods each day the canal is closed – at a time when the coronavirus pandemic is already causing demand in consumer goods to surge.

Not only will deliveries be delayed, but the jam also prevents the return of empty containers back to Asia, exacerbating a container shortage caused by the pandemic’s disruptions to shipping.

“It’s almost like a ketchup bottle,” said Lars Jensen, chief executive of SeaIntelligence Consulting. “The longer this lasts, the higher risk that we are going to see major congestion problems in the European ports.”

What is the world's reaction? 

While the real-world consequences of the jam are serious, many also noted the absurdity of the situation in a seemingly endless flood of social media memes.

In one viral post, the gigantic ship was captioned “my tasks,” and the comparatively puny backhoe “me, dutifully chipping away at my tasks.” In another, the boat was “your first draft” and the backhoe “editors.”

This story was reported by The Associated Press. 

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