Skyscraper-sized cargo ship remains wedged across Egypt’s Suez Canal

A cargo container ship that’s among the largest in the world continued on Thursday to block all traffic in Egypt’s Suez Canal two days after it ran aground.

It puts global shipping, already strained by the coronavirus pandemic, further in peril as at least 150 other vessels needing to pass through the crucial waterway idled waiting for the obstruction to clear, authorities said.

The closure could affect oil and gas shipments to Europe from the Mideast, which rely on the canal to avoid sailing around Africa.

The MV Ever Given, a Panama-flagged container ship that carries trade between Asia and Europe, became grounded Tuesday in the narrow, man-made waterway dividing continental Africa from the Sinai Peninsula.

It wasn’t immediately clear what caused the Ever Given to turn sideways in the canal. GAC, a global shipping and logistics company, described the ship as suffering “a blackout while transiting in a northerly direction,” without giving more details.

In the time since, efforts to free the ship using dredgers, digging and the aid of high tides have yet to push the container vessel aside.

So far, dredgers have tried to clear silt around the massive ship, tug boats nudged the vessel, trying to gain momentum.

‘Overcome by strong winds’

Evergreen Marine Corp, a major Taiwan-based shipping company that operates the vessel, said in a statement provided to The Associated Press news agency that the Ever Given had been overcome by strong winds as it entered the Suez Canal from the Red Sea but none of its containers had sunk.

Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement, the company that manages the Ever Given, said the ship’s 25-member crew are safe and accounted for.

The ship had two pilots from Egypt’s canal authority aboard the vessel to guide it when the grounding happened around 7.45 am on Tuesday, the company said.

An initial report suggested the ship suffered a power blackout before the incident, something Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement denied Thursday.

“Initial investigations rule out any mechanical or engine failure as a cause of the grounding,” the company said.

Canal service provider Leth Agencies said at least 150 ships were waiting for the Ever Given to be cleared, including vessels near Port Said on the Mediterranean Sea, Port Suez on the Red Sea and those already stuck in the canal system on Egypt’s Great Bitter Lake.

The Ever Given’s bow was touching the canal’s eastern wall, while its stern looked lodged against its western wall, according to satellite data from MarineTraffic.com.

The ship ran aground some 6km north of the southernly mouth of the canal near the city of Suez, an area of the canal that’s a single lane.

Prelude to global shipping chaos?

That could have a major knock-on effect for global shipping moving between the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea, warned Salvatore R. Mercogliano, a former merchant mariner and associate professor of history at North Carolina’s Campbell University.

“Every day, 50 vessels on average go through that canal, so the closing of the canal means no vessels are transiting north and south,” Mercogliano told the AP.

„Every day the canal is closed … container ships and tankers are not delivering food, fuel and manufactured goods to Europe and goods are not being exported from Europe to the Far East.”

The Ever Given had listed its destination as Rotterdam in the Netherlands prior to getting stuck in the canal.

The ship, built in 2018 with a length of nearly 400 metres and a width of 59 meters, is among the largest cargo ships in the world. It can carry around 20,000 containers at a time.

Tuesday marked the second major crash involving the Ever Given in recent years. In 2019, the cargo ship ran into a small ferry moored on the Elbe River in the German port city of Hamburg.

Authorities at the time blamed strong winds for the collision, which severely damaged the ferry.

Opened in 1869, the Suez Canal provides a crucial link for oil, natural gas and cargo being shipping from East to West. Around 10% of the world’s trade flows through the waterway and it remains one of Egypt’s top foreign currency earners.

In 2015, the government of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi completed a major expansion of the canal, allowing it to accommodate the world’s largest vessels but the Ever Given ran aground before that new portion of the canal.

The incident on Tuesday marks just the latest to affect mariners amid the pandemic with hundreds of thousands stuck aboard vessels in the last year.

Meanwhile, demands on shipping have increased, adding to the pressure on tired sailors, Mercogliano said.

“It’s because of the breakneck pace of global shipping right now and shipping is on a very tight schedule,” he said. „Add to it that mariners have not been able to get on and off vessels because of COVID restrictions.”

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