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in-focus

One of the world's biggest ships, wedged across Suez Canal, is disrupting a key trade route


Headaches continued to mount Thursday as a gigantic cargo ship remained stuck in Egypt's Suez Canal for a third day, blocking a crucial choke point in global shipping.

"It is not really possible to pull it loose," said Peter Berdowski, the CEO of Dutch salvage company Boskalis, which is helping Egyptian officials to dislodge the boat. Completely freeing the cargo ship "might take weeks," he added, since the vessel is marooned on the canal's sandy banks "like an enormous beached whale."

At least 150 ships loaded with consumer goods, crude oil and live animals are stuck in an increasingly costly traffic jam as eight tugboats work to free the massive vessel.

The Ever Given, which is operated by Taiwan-based Evergreen Marine, was bound for the Netherlands on Tuesday when a dust storm hit, leading to heavy winds and poor visibility in the 120-mile-long passage from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. Exactly what went wrong and led the boat to run aground remains unclear: While initial reports suggested that the dust storm had knocked out power aboard the ship, Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement, which manages the ship, said Wednesday there was no mechanical or engine failure.

Suez Canal Authority officials and Evergreen Marine have blamed winds that reportedly reached up to 30 mph. But that explanation has garnered some skepticism, given that the ship weighs as much as 220,000 tons when fully loaded and was built to withstand much stronger gusts.

Some experts suspect that the ship's massive size - it's more than a quarter-mile long, making it one of the largest container ships ever built - may have been a major additional contributing factor.

Such immense ships present problems because the piles of containers on the deck effectively act like a giant sail, Bill Kavanagh, a lecturer in nautical science at the National Maritime College of Ireland who has navigated the Suez as a captain, told RTE. "It can easily destabilize the vessel and blow a vessel off course, and when you're taking about a vessel of so many thousand tons of weight, its momentum is quite considerable, and it's very hard to stop any movement caused by wind."

On Wednesday, experts estimated that it could take days to dislodge the ship. By Thursday, some were saying it could take weeks.

"In our view the situation now looks unlikely to be heading for a swift resolution," London-based Braemar ACM Shipbroking said in a note to clients Thursday, according to The Wall Street Journal. Shipping giants such as Maersk warned customers that the backlog probably would increase and that there was no way to know when commerce might be back to normal.

Japanese firm Shoei Kisen Kaisha, the owner of the Ever Given, apologized for the backup on Thursday, saying the company was "working hard to resolve the situation," but it added that circumstances were "extremely difficult."

The Suez Canal Authority posted a video of the rescue operation on social media Thursday - complete with an action movie soundtrack. In the 90-second clip, officials are seen heading toward the stranded ship, their eyes transfixed on the horizon as an intense beat plays in the background.

At least eight ships carrying live animals are stuck in the traffic jam, according to Bloomberg News data. Others are moving commodities such as cement and crude oil, meaning extended delays could have a ripple effect on nearly every industry around the world. The ship's owner could face millions of dollars in insurance claims from companies that did not meet delivery targets because of the holdup or had perishable goods spoil during the wait.

While unexpected delays are par for the course in the shipping industry, worldwide supply chains were already hobbled by the continued disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Fears that shipments of crude from the Middle East could be delayed for days or weeks led global oil prices to spike Wednesday. An estimated 1.9 million barrels of oil typically pass through the canal on a regular day.

While ships can take an alternative route around the southern tip of Africa, as they did in the days before the canal, doing so could take a week or longer and rack up an additional half-million dollars in costs.

On Thursday, the British government said it was on hand to help free the ship.

"We are ready to provide any assistance that we can but have not been asked yet," a spokesman for Prime Minister Boris Johnson said.

Published : March 26, 2021

By : The Washington Post · Jennifer Hassan, Antonia Noori Farzan