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Egypt shuts Suez amid ‘extreme difficulty’ of refloating megaship blocking canal

Salvage experts warn closure of crucial waterway could last days or even weeks; shipping giants say they’re considering going around African continent

This satellite image from Cnes2021, Distribution Airbus DS, shows the cargo ship MV Ever Given stuck in the Suez Canal near Suez, Egypt, March 25, 2021. (Cnes2021, Distribution Airbus DS via AP)
This satellite image from Cnes2021, Distribution Airbus DS, shows the cargo ship MV Ever Given stuck in the Suez Canal near Suez, Egypt, March 25, 2021. (Cnes2021, Distribution Airbus DS via AP)

CAIRO — The owners of a giant container vessel blocking the Suez Canal said Thursday they faced “extreme difficulty” refloating it as Egypt temporarily closed one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

Salvage experts warned the shut-down could last days or even weeks, potentially forcing businesses to reroute cargo ships around the southern tip of Africa in a blow to global supply networks.

On the third day of the crisis, global shipping giant Maersk and Germany’s Hapag-Lloyd both said they were looking into going around Africa.

The Suez drastically shortens travel between Asia and Europe. The Singapore-Rotterdam route, for example, is 6,000 kilometers (3,700 miles) and up to two weeks shorter via the canal than going around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope.

This photo released by the Suez Canal Authority on March 25, 2021, shows a backhoe trying to dig out the keel of the Ever Given, a Panama-flagged cargo ship that is wedged across the Suez Canal and blocking traffic in the vital waterway. (Suez Canal Authority via AP)

Egypt’s Suez Canal Authority (SCA) said it was doing all it could to refloat the MV Ever Given, a 400-meter (1,300-foot) long and 200,000 toe vessel which veered off course and ran aground in a sandstorm on Tuesday.

Tug boats, dredgers and heavy earth-moving equipment have been deployed but so far the ship has not budged.

“It’s really a heavy whale on the beach, so to speak,” said Peter Berdowski, head of Dutch firm Smit Salvage which previously worked on the stranded Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia and the sunken Russian nuclear submarine Kursk.

The salvage company was deploying a team to the site Thursday to assess what it would take to dislodge the Panama-flagged ship, said Berdowski, CEO of its parent company Boskalis.

“We are looking at how much oil it contains, how much water — these are complex calculations,” he said on Dutch TV news program Nieuwsuur.

“I don’t want to speculate, but it can take days or weeks.”

‘Great deal of worry’

Satellite pictures released by Planet Labs Inc show the so-called “megaship,” which is longer than four football fields, wedged diagonally across the entire canal.

With ships waiting in both the Mediterranean and Red Sea and in the canal, the SCA announced it was “temporarily suspending navigation” along the waterway.

Japanese ship-leasing firm Shoei Kisen Kaisha, the owner of the giant vessel, said it was facing “extreme difficulty” trying to refloat it.

“We sincerely apologize for causing a great deal of worry to ships in the Suez Canal and those planning to go through the canal,” it said in a statement.

A MarineTraffic map showed large clusters of vessels circling as they waited in both the Mediterranean to the north and the Red Sea to the south.

Ships anchor in Lake Timsah, Ismailia, halfway through Egypt’s Suez canal on March 25, 2021. (Associated Press/ Sam Magdy)

Oil prices had jumped by almost six percent on Wednesday in response to the Suez Canal accident, before dropping again on Thursday.

“What a single vessel can do to the global oil market is remarkable,” said Rystad Energy analyst Bjornar Tonhaugen.

“The stuck vessel in the Suez Canal created the visual definition of a supply route bottleneck, effectively disrupting one of the world’s busiest routes for all commodities.”

“We’ve never seen anything like it before,” said Ranjith Raja, Middle East oil and shipping researcher at financial data firm Refinitiv.

“It is likely that the congestion… will take several days or weeks to sort out as it will have a knock-on effect on other convoys.”

Broker Braemar warned that if tug boats are unable to move the giant vessel, some of its cargo might have to be removed by crane barge to refloat it.

“This can take days, maybe weeks,” it said.

‘Critical’ route

The vessel’s managers, Singapore-based Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement, said the 25 crew aboard were unhurt and the hull and cargo undamaged.

Historic sections of the canal were reopened Wednesday in a bid to ease the congestion.

The Suez is an “absolutely critical” route, said Camille Egloff, a maritime transport specialist at Boston Consulting Group.

Nearly 19,000 ships passed through the canal last year carrying more than one billion tons of cargo, according to the SCA.

Egypt earned $5.61 billion in revenues.

This photo released by the Suez Canal Authority on March 25, 2021 shows Lt. Gen. Ossama Rabei, head of the Suez Canal Authority, investigating the situation with the Ever Given, a Panama-flagged cargo ship, after it became wedged across the Suez Canal and blocking traffic in the vital waterway. (Suez Canal Authority via AP)

Canal traffic has been disrupted several times in the past, notably during the Arab-Israeli wars of the second half of the 20th century.

It was closed for six months after Egypt nationalized the canal operating company in 1956, prompting an abortive invasion by Britain, France and Israel.

During the Six Day War of 1967, Egypt imposed a blockade to prevent the canal’s use by Israel.

More recently, in 2018, the canal was temporarily closed after a Greek-owned bulk carrier suffered engine failure, triggering a five-ship collision.

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