Engineering Fail? A Massive Ship Just Blocked the Suez Canal

It's blocking one of the most vital global shipping waterways.
Brad Bergan

A massive container ship is stuck in Egypt's Suez Canal, blocking marine traffic through one of the world's busiest and most crucial waterways, according to a Wednesday statement from the Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement (BSM) company.

Rescue boats (eight of them!) are working to float and free the vessel — called the Ever Given — which is more than 1,300 ft (roughly 396 m) long. The ship ran aground after 40-knot winds and a sandstorm reduced visibility and the ship's capacity to navigate.

Giant shipping boat stuck in Suez Canal is as long as the Empire State is tall

The Suez Canal is a vital shortcut for worldwide commerce in Egypt — enabling direct water-based transportation between Europe's Mediterranean Sea and Asia via the Red Sea. Several centuries ago, navigators exploring or shipping goods had to travel around the southern coast of Africa, greatly extending shipping times and effectively separating the two sides of the larger Eurasian geographical region.

While the waterway has been open in different instantiations since roughly 2,000 B.C., it wasn't until 1869 A.D. that the Suez Canal was formally opened under French control, reducing the travel distance by 43%. While Egypt has long since gained its independence from colonial powers, the canal is still a vital connection between the two sides of the world.

The 224,000-ton ship, which sailed under a Panama flag, was traveling down the 119-mile (192-km) waterway en route to the Dutch port of Rotterdam when it was pushed off course by high winds and a sandstorm. The ship — which is as long as the Empire State Building is tall — is currently wedged across this global juncture at the canal's 94-mile (151-km) mark.

Several other convoys to the south are stuck now

All crew of the Ever Given are safe, with no reports of injuries, pollution, or even damage to cargo. Investigation on the incident has already ruled out mechanical or engine failure as the cause of the colossal ship's grounding, according to the press release.

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The Suez Canal Authority's immediate efforts are to safely re-float (or "un-ground") the colossal vessel, after which the ship will be inspected, according to the BSM press release.

Tanker Trackers — which use satellite and maritime data to monitor passing vessels — said the incident created tailbacks of other nearby ships. "Tankers carrying Saudi, Russian, Omani and U.S. oil are waiting on both ends," said the entity, according to a CNN report.

The ship was en route north from the Red Sea when it hit a snag at roughly 1:40 AM EDT, suffering a total blackout, according to a Reuters report citing the port agents. Roughly 15 other ships on a northbound heading behind the Ever Given were held at anchorages while the canal is re-opened. Another convoy, farther south, is also blocked.

Wedged ship in Suez Canal could take time to re-float

Roughly 19,000 ships — making an average of 51.5 ships daily and a net tonnage of 1.3 tons of shipping — moved through the canal in 2020, according to the Suez Canal Authority. The artificial canal provides a crucial waterway passage to roughly 12% of global trade volume — constituting a major source of hard currency for Egypt.

"This can have impact on freight very much," said a shipbroker from Singapore to CNN. "If it lasts longer, it can lead to shipment delays both ways." Oil and gas flows worldwide will be affected, but the extent of the shipping hiccup will depend on how long it takes to clear the container ship.

"If it extends to, say, weeks it will of course disrupt all shipping in a major way," said Managing Director Ashok Sharma of Singapore-based shipbroker BRS Baxi, in the CNN report. "But I think there should be sufficient resources available and pretty much in close proximity to deal with the situation quickly, in days rather than weeks."

It's hard to say how long this shipping will remain stalled in the Suez Canal, as the eight tug boats work to re-float the Ever Given and send it on its way. But it's interesting to note how even now, with so many global events determined by extremely online happenings on social media — sometimes a giant wedged ship can act as a cork — or thrown shoe — in the system of global commerce and trade.

This was a breaking story and was regularly updated as new information became available.