Suez Canal still blocked as efforts to refloat stranded vessel continue

Suez Canal still blocked as efforts to refloat stranded vessel continue
Lieutenant general Osama Rabie, chairman of the SCA, watching on during dredging operations

The Suez Canal remains blocked to vessels in both directions as the ultra-large container vessel (ULCV), the Ever Given, is still stranded in the waterway despite efforts to refloat it.

Lieutenant general Osama Rabie, chairman of the Suez Canal Authority (SCA), has announced that navigation of the canal is suspended on Thursday March 25 until the 200,000 tonne vessel is floated again.

After attempts to refloat the vessel on Wednesday evening failed, two dredgers continued to dredge throughout the night.

The operations to float the ship included tension and propulsion methods with eight large locomotives at the forefront of the Baraka 1 tugboat with a tensile strength of 160 tonnes.

The incident continues to create long tailbacks on the waterway, stopping vessels from passing and causing delays, with more than 150 ships waiting to transit the canal.

So far, nine Maersk container vessels and two partner vessels have been directly affected. Efforts are being made to move all northbound vessels out of the canal to facilitate a clear passage and continuous convoys when the Evergreen vessel has successfully been released.

On Wednesday, 13 ships started to cross the canal from Port Said within the northern convoy, under the expectation that they could complete the transit according to projections on the length of time it would take to move the Ever Given.

However, an alternative scenario had to be adopted, which entailed those vessels dropping anchor in the Bitter Lakes waiting area, until navigation can be fully resumed after the floatation of the vessels.

Speaking to a Dutch television station, Peter Berdowski, CEO of Dutch dredging company Boskalis, which is participating in the rescue efforts, said it was too early to estimate when the vessel is refloated, according to Reuters.

Noting that the ship’s bow and stern had been lifted up against either side of the canal, he added: “We can’t exclude it might take weeks, depending on the situation.”

Berdowski stated: “It is like an enormous beached whale. It’s an enormous weight on the sand. We might have to work with a combination of reducing the weight by removing containers, oil and water from the ship, tugboats and dredging of sand.”

Ships face costly and lengthy deviations if the canal is not opened soon, with the alternative being to sail around the African continent, adding 9,000km or around a week to a journey.

German carrier Hapag-Lloyd, which has five vessels currently caught up in the traffic jam, has clarified that it is looking into possible vessel diversions around Cape of Good Hope.

Simon Heaney, senior manager – container research at Drewry, told CM: “Shipping lines need to make a decision on whether to bypass the canal entirely which will add more time and cost in terms of fuelling. It all depends on how long the disruption lasts. If the problem is solved within a couple of days, the impact should be fairly minimal.”

Unprecedented levels of demand for goods from western consumers have led to severe congestion at numerous ports and Heaney believes that ports may be able to use this time to work through backlogs.

However, regarding a potential spike in port calls once the canal reopens, he noted: “The smooth operation of ports is facilitated by planning. If you have less visibility in terms of how many ships are about to berth, that’s going to make planning harder for ports.

“The danger is once those ships are released, they all come at once and create another massive peak that the ports and terminals aren’t able to cope with. It’s going to take a lot of dialogue between shipping lines and ports about how they best manage that.”

About 10% of global trade passes through the Suez Canal, including 30% of world container trade, utilising the waterway which connects the Mediterranean to the Red Sea and provides the shortest sea link between Asia and Europe.

Data from Allianz showed that groundings (such as the Ever Given incident) are the most common cause of shipping incidents in the canal. There have been 25 in the past ten years or one in three of all shipping incidents in the canal.

Nearly 19,000 ships passed through the canal in 2020, according to the SCA – an average of 51.5 ships per day.

The Suez Canal has a strong record overall with shipping incidents extremely rare, added Allianz, with only 75 reported shipping incidents over the past decade.