BEIRUT – On any given day, more than 50 ships traverse the 120-mile Suez Canal, bearing millions of tons of cargo that make up some 12% of the world’s trade volume.
But not since Tuesday, after a mammoth vessel ran aground in the vital waterway. In the more than 24 hours since, the ship – a 1,300-foot-long, 193-foot-wide, 200,000-ton behemoth named the Ever Given – has spurred the mother of all traffic jams, forcing hundreds of ships to wait in the open sea and potentially causing a cataclysm in global shipping, experts say.
The Ever Given, classified as an ultra-large container ship, remains wedged sideways some 90 miles from the canal’s southern section, where it had begun its northerly passage from China to Rotterdam, in the Netherlands.
Egypt’s Suez Canal Authority blamed the incident on a “lack of visibility due to bad weather conditions” caused by a regionwide sandstorm and winds up to 46 mph, according to a statement released Wednesday.
“This led to the loss of the ability to steer the ship and then its grounding,” the statement said, adding that authorities had opened the canal’s original channel to ease traffic. In 2015, the Egyptian government deepened the canal’s main waterway and opened a parallel 22-mile channel. The area in which the Ever Given ran aground is a single lane.
The grounding caused no collisions. Eight tugboats have been dispatched in an attempt to refloat the vessel.
Leth Agencies, which provides ship transit services through the Suez Canal and other straits, said in a tweet Wednesday that two dredgers were also en route to the Ever Given to assist in refloating operations. It later added that tug and dredging assistance were improving the situation but that “nothing is confirmed as of now.”
Port agent GAC said Wednesday that wind conditions and the Ever Given’s size were “hindering the operation.” At noon local time, it said that the vessel had been partially refloated and that traffic would resume “as soon as the vessel is towed to another position.”
But the delay has already caused problems, said Samir Madani, co-founder of TankerTrackers.
“The anchorage on the north and south end of the canal, it’s ballooning quickly. Every day this continues, it will be worse and worse,” Madani said in a phone interview. He added that since the blockage began, some 12 million barrels of crude oil were stuck at the canal’s north and south entrances.
“This will cause a huge problem later on, because the traffic jam will need time to be processed,” he said.
Since the canal’s blockage, crude oil prices have risen by more than $1.50 per barrel – almost a 3% increase, said Anas Alhajji, a Texas-based energy expert. The rise was a small one, he added, since traders expected normal traffic would soon resume.
“It will be a problem if it lasts a few days, but based on what I’m hearing, it will be over in a few hours” he said.
The ship, which is registered in Panama, is carrying 224,000 tons of cargo, according to Egyptian authorities, and is operated by Evergreen, a Taiwanese shipping company.
A picture of the Ever Given posted on Instagram by a passenger on a nearby vessel, the Maersk Denver, shows the mega-ship at a diagonal to the canal. A lone excavator works near its bow, which appears in other images to have gotten stuck in the canal’s eastern bank.
“The bulb at the bottom struck through the wall of the canal, which is sand, so it’s practically beached,” Madani said. “If they try to yank it out with tugboats, they would risk toppling containers.”
Video apparently shot from a ship near the canal showed queues of vessels stretching toward the horizon.
“Looks like we might be here for a little bit,” wrote Julianne Cona, a passenger on the Maersk Denver who uploaded the image of the Ever Given on Instagram.
“From the looks of it that ship is super stuck … they had a bunch of tugs trying to pull and push it earlier but it was going nowhere.”
The Suez Canal, first opened in 1869, is a major source of cash for Egypt, bringing in about $5.6 billion in revenues to Cairo’s coffers in 2020.