Rescue efforts to free cargo ship blocking Suez Canal

Suez Canal: Ever Given remains stuck for fifth day as more than 320 ships wait in queue

Efforts fail to free the 400m-long vessel at high tide on Saturday

Peter Stubley
Sunday 28 March 2021 02:20
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The Suez Canal was blocked for a fifth day despite minor progress in dislodging the Ever Given - as it remained unclear when one the world's busiest waterways will be reopened.

More than 320 vessels are now caught in the maritime traffic jam caused by the 400m-long container ship after it ran aground during 40-knot winds and a dust storm on Tuesday.

Two attempts to refloat the ship with the help of 14 tugboats failed on Saturday, according to the Ever Given’s management company, despite hopes that it could be freed at high tide.

Officials said they had managed to move the stern and rudder after dredgers removed some 20,000 tonnes of sand from around its bow and 9,000 tonnes of ballast water were removed from the ship to help make it lighter.

The head of the Suez Canal Authority, Osama Rabie, also expressed hope that the ship could move "at any time" and told local TV that water had started running underneath the ship.

But asked when they expected the canal to reopen, Mr Rabie said: "I can't say because I do not know." Some experts have warned the canal could be blocked for weeks.

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A Dutch firm involved in the operation said that the ship could be freed at the start of the week with the help of heavier tugboats with a combined capacity of 400 tonnes. If not, then they would have to use a crane to remove some of the 18,300 containers on board to lighten the ship's load.

"We aim to get it done after the weekend, but everything will have to work out exactly right for that," Boskalis chief executive Peter Berdowski told Dutch TV programme Nieuwsuur.

"If we don't succeed in getting it loose next week, we will have to remove some 600 containers from the bow to reduce the weight. That will set us back days at least, because where to leave all those containers will be quite a puzzle."

If the blockage continues, ships are faced with a much longer, and more expensive, voyage around the Cape of Good Hope.

About 15 per cent of world shipping traffic passes through the canal and the crisis has already disrupted global supply chains, with Ikea and the UK-based furniture firm Cotswold Company both affected by the maritime traffic jam. Experts have warned that shoppers could see some higher prices as a result.

Shipping rates for oil product tankers have already nearly doubled, with dozens of vessels carrying liquefied natural gas (LNG) or liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) waiting to pass through the canal.

Syria's oil ministry announced on Saturday that it had begun rationing the distribution of fuel in the war-torn country amid concerns of delays to shipments.

Meanwhile the head of the canal authority appeared to suggest that “human or technical error” may have played a part in the Ever Given running aground.

Mr Rabie said the investigation was continuing but commented that strong winds were “not the only cause”. It came after Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement said on Friday that its initial investigation showed the vessel ran aground due to strong winds and ruled out mechanical or engine failure.

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