The Ship Blocking the Suez Canal Could Take Weeks to Remove
Working out at $400m per hour, the blockage of the vital waterway linking the east and the west is placing an enormous strain on supply chains already affected by COVID-19.
We take a look at the importance of the waterway as well as the methods currently being employed to dislodge the Empire State Building-sized cargo ship, which is operated by the Taiwanese company Evergreen Marine.
The Suez Canal: a brief history
Ever since the idea was first devised for the Suez Canal, the goal has been the same: to open up global trade between the east and west.
The 193 km (120-mile) man-made waterway connecting the Meditteranean and the Red Sea was originally constructed between 1859 and 1869. However, the idea for the canal dates back to the times of Ancient Egypt.
Pharaoh Senusret III is thought to have built a precursor to the Suez Canal connecting the Red Sea with the Nile River as early as 1850 BC.
Without today's modern engineering methods for construction and dredging maintenance, the Ancient Egyptian canal gradually fell out of use and was enveloped by accumulations of silt during the rule of subsequent leaders.
Much later, French former diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps negotiated an agreement with the Egyptian viceroy, forming the Suez Canal Company in 1854. The construction was initially started using Egyptian peasant slave labor.
The country's ruler at the time, Ismail Pasha, outlawed slave labor in 1863, leading to the employment of steam and coal-powered shovels and dredgers. Overall, 75 million cubic meters of sand were shifted over the decade of work.
As recently as 2014, a $9bn year-long project was undertaken to widen and deepen the canal's Ballah Bypass, boosting transit times and allowing 97 ships to pass each day — without this expansion, larger ships like the Ever Given would not fit through the canal.
In 2019, 19,000 ships passed through the Suez Canal, equating to nearly 1.25 billion tonnes of cargo. This is thought to represent approximately 13 percent of world trade.
Like moving the Empire State Building
The Ever Given is 400 meters (1,300 feet) long and is wedged diagonally across a canal that is only 656 feet wide — thanks to a sandstorm that drastically lowered visibility and whose 50 km/h (31 mph) winds caused the ship's cargo to act like sails.
The massive ship surpasses the world's largest aircraft carrier in size — the US Navy's USS Gerald is 337 meters (1,106 feet) long — and, if placed vertically, it would be taller than the Empire State Building, which is 381 meters (1,250 feet) without its antenna.
As it is firmly grounded on both sides, it could take weeks to remove, despite current efforts, experts say.
Two principal methods are currently being employed to try to dislodge the ship: firstly, diggers are excavating the area around the bow at the same time as tug boats are attempting to pull the boat free. Ships are also dredging sand and silt from underneath the bows in an attempt to dislodge the vessel.
In a press statement, the company that manages the running of the vessel, Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement (BSM), said that "in addition to the [nine] dredgers already on site a specialized suction dredger is now with the vessel and will shortly begin work. This dredger can shift 2,000 cubic meters of material every hour."
BSM also explained that any attempt to refloat the ship on Thursday morning failed and that it will try again soon.
Officials are also considering whether to remove cargo from the ship in order to lighten the load. In doing so, they hope the ship will be able to free itself by floating above the bank of the canal.
'Beached whale' ship could break in half in 'worst case scenario'
"We can’t exclude it might take weeks, depending on the situation," Peter Berdowski, CEO of Dutch company Boskalis, one of two rescue teams trying to free the ship, told the Dutch television program “Nieuwsuur” — as reported by Reuters.
"It is like an enormous beached whale. It’s an enormous weight on the sand," Berdowski explained.
In an interview with the BBC, Sal Mercogliano, an expert in maritime history at Campbell University in the US, highlighted the complexity of removing cargo from such a large ship.
"You would have to bring large floating cranes - but anything you do right now you would have to determine how it would affect the stability," said Dr. Mercogliano.
"The worst-case scenario," Dr. Mercogliano explained, "is that she breaks in half because of [uneven] weight distributions."
Supply chain strain forces shipping firms to consider detour
The Suez Canal blockage comes at the same time as disruption caused by COVID-19, with supply chains hit by a shortage of containers, slower handling speeds, and high rates of ship cancellations.
According to Reuters, world-leading logistics firm Maersk said it is considering diverting vessels around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope. The approximately 24,140 km (15,000-mile) detour would add five to six days to the journey between Asia and Europe.
In a statement, the Suez Canal Authority said that it hopes dredging work will return the Ever Given cargo ship to a draft of 12-16 meters (39-52 feet), at which it could be refloated. It's incredible to think that a matter of $9.6 billion in daily world trade is dependant on a few paltry meters of elevation.