Cargo Ship Is Partially Freed, Raising Hopes of Restoring Trade Traffic
After five days of struggling to free the Ever Given from where it ran aground, the vessel was partially refloated and, according to shipping officials, close to fully freed.,
The mammoth cargo ship blocking one of the world’s most vital maritime arteries was wrenched from the shoreline and set partially afloat again early Monday, raising hopes that traffic could soon resume in the Suez Canal and limit the economic fallout of the disruption.
Salvage teams, working on both land and water for five days and nights, were ultimately assisted by forces more powerful than any machine rushed to the scene: the moon and the tides.
As water levels swelled overnight, the hours spent digging and excavating millions of tons of earth around the Ever Given paid off as the ship slowly regained buoyancy, according to officials.
While shipping officials and the Egyptian authorities cautioned that the complicated operation was still underway, they expressed increasing confidence the ship would soon be completely free.
The stern was now some 300 feet from shore, according to the Suez Canal Authority.
President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt celebrated the moment on Twitter, writing that “Egyptians have succeeded today in ending the crisis of the stuck ship in the Suez Canal despite the great complexities surrounding this situation in every aspect.”
However, others involved in the operation urged caution.
While the ship was moving, what remained unclear was whether the bulbous bow — a protrusion at the front of the ship just below the waterline — is totally clear of dirt and debris. If it is still stuck in clay or obstructed by rocks, the early morning optimism could quickly fade.
Peter Berdowski, the chief executive of Royal Boskalis Westminster, which has been appointed by Ever Given’s owner to help move the vessel, told the Dutch public broadcaster NOS on Monday that he understood the bow to be stuck “rock solid.”
“The ship is like a giant whale that we have to slide off the beach, back in the water,” he said early Monday. Pulling the stern lose, he said, was the easy part.
“We shouldn’t start cheering just yet,” he cautioned.
The high tide on Monday morning peaked at 11:42 a.m. local time, and crews will continue maneuvers as long as the water remains high, according to the authority. The next high tide will crest around midnight.
Despite the note of caution, workers at the scene could be seen in images circulating on social media celebrating their progress in the predawn hours.
There was widespread hope it was a a turning point in one of the largest and most intense salvage operations in modern history, with the smooth functioning of the global trading system hanging in the balance.
Each day the canal is blocked put global supply chains another day closer to a full-blown crisis.
Vessels packed with the world’s goods — including cars, oil, livestock and laptops — usually flow through the waterway with ease, supplying much of the globe as they traverse the quickest path from Asia and the Middle East to Europe and the East Coast of the United States.
With concerns the salvage operation could take weeks, some ships decided not to wait, turning to take the long way around the southern tip of Africa, a voyage that could add weeks to the journey and more than $26,000 a day in fuel costs.
The army of machine operators, engineers, tugboat captains, and other salvage operators know they are in a race against time.
Late Saturday, tugboat drivers sounded their horns in celebration of the most visible sign of progress since the ship ran aground late Tuesday.
The 220,000-ton ship moved. It did not go far — just two degrees, or about 100 feet, according to shipping officials. That came on top of progress from Friday, when canal officials said dredgers had managed to dig out the rear of the ship, freeing its rudder.
The company that oversees the ship’s operations and crew, Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement, said 11 tugboats were helping, with two joining the struggle on Sunday. Several dredgers, including a specialized suction dredger that can extract 2,000 cubic meters of material per hour, dug around the vessel’s bow, the company said.
Salvagers were determined to free the vessel as the spring tide rolls in, raising the canal’s water level as much as 18 inches, analysts and shipping agents said.
It is a delicate mission, with crews trying to move the ship without unbalancing it or breaking it apart.
With the Ever Given sagging in the middle, its bow and stern both caught in positions for which they were not designed, the hull is vulnerable to stress and cracks, according to experts. Just as every high tide brought hope the ship could be released, each low tide puts new stresses on the vessel.
Teams of divers have been inspecting the hull throughout the operation and have found no damage, officials said. It would need to be inspected again once it was completely free.
And it would take some time to also inspect the canal itself to ensure safe passage. With hundreds of ships backed up on either side, it could be days before operations return to normal.
Thomas Erdbrink contributed reporting.
From the deck of a tugboat in the Suez Canal, where the Egyptian authorities allowed journalists to glimpse the salvage operation for the first time on Saturday, the Ever Given looked like a fallen skyscraper, lights ablaze.
Three boats that barely reached halfway up the word EVERGREEN painted on the ship’s side, for its Taiwan-based operator, had nosed up to its starboard side, keeping it stable.
A powerful tugboat sat near the ship’s stern, waiting for the next attempt to push and pull it out.
Together, the armada of tugboats — their engines churning with the combined power of tens of thousands of horses — have been pushing and pulling at the Ever Given for days.
Then, before dawn on Monday, the ship broke free from the shore and was partially refloated — a moment both shipping and Egyptian officials hoped marked the beginning of the end of the saga.
Once fully afloat, the ship can be easily controlled by tugboats and safely pushed out of the way.
It was a possible turning point in a drama that had been building for days, where optimism seemed to rise and fall like the tides themselves.
With the ship too heavy for tugboats alone, the effort on the water was being aided by teams on land, where cranes that look like playthings in the shadow of the hulking cargo ship have been scooping mountains of earth from the area where the ship’s bow and stern are wedged tight.
As the dredgers worked, a team of eight Dutch salvage experts and naval architects overseeing the operation were surveying the ship and the seabed and creating a computer model to help it work around the vessel without damaging it, said Capt. Nick Sloane, a South African salvage master who led the operation to right the Costa Concordia, the cruise ship that capsized in 2012 off the coast of Italy.
If the tugboats, dredgers and pumps are unable to get the job done, they will be joined by a head-spinning array of specialized vessels and machines requiring perhaps hundreds of workers: small tankers to siphon off the ship’s fuel, the tallest cranes in the world to unload containers one by one and, if no cranes are tall enough or near enough, heavy-duty helicopters that can pick up containers of up to 20 tons — though no one has said where the cargo would go. (A full 40-foot container can weigh up to 40 tons.)
All this because, to put it simply: “This is a very big ship. This is a very big problem,” said Richard Meade, the editor in chief of Lloyd’s List, a maritime intelligence publication based in London.
With hopes rising that the partial refloating of the Ever Given means the Suez Canal will soon be reopen for business, shipping analysts cautioned that it will take time — perhaps days — for the hundreds of ships now waiting for passage to continue their journeys.
Shipping analysts estimated the traffic jam was holding up nearly $10 billion in trade every day.
“All global retail trade moves in containers, or 90 percent of it,” said Alan Murphy, the founder of Sea-Intelligence, a maritime data and analysis firm. “Name any brand name, and they will be stuck on one of those vessels.”
The Syrian government said over the weekend that it would begin rationing the use of fuel after the closure of the Suez Canal delayed the delivery of a critical shipment of oil to the war-torn nation.
And in Lebanon, which in recent months has been suffering blackouts amid an economic and political crisis, local news outlets were reporting that the country’s shaky fuel supply risked further disruption if the blockage continued.
With the backlog of ships now stuck outside the canal growing to over 300 on Sunday, the threat to the oil supplies in Lebanon and Syria was an early indication of how quickly the disruption to the smooth functioning of global trade could ripple outward.
Virtually every container ship making the journey from factories in Asia to consumer markets in Europe passes through the channel. So do tankers laden with oil and natural gas.
The shutdown of the canal is affecting as much as 15 percent of the world’s container shipping capacity, according to Moody’s Investor Service, leading to delays at ports around the globe. Tankers carrying 9.8 million barrels of crude, about a tenth of a day’s global consumption, are now waiting to enter the canal, estimates Kpler, a firm that tracks petroleum shipping.
The Syrian Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources said the blockage of the canal had “hindered the oil supplies to Syria and delayed arrival of a tanker carrying oil and oil derivations to Syria.”
Rationing was needed, the ministry said in a statement, “in order to guarantee the continued supply of basic services to Syrians such as bakeries, hospitals, water stations, communication centers, and other vital institutions.”
From the outset, when winds of more than 70 miles per hour whipped up the sands surrounding the Suez Canal into a blinding storm and the Ever Given ran aground, the forces of nature have played an outsize role in the drama that has disrupted the free flow of goods and oil around the planet.
Since the 1,300-foot cargo ship laden with nearly 20,000 containers found itself wedged in the single lane of the canal, salvage teams have had to calculate complicated questions regarding not just engineering and physics, but also meteorology and earth science.
And no natural phenomenon has been as critical as the tides.
“The rising and falling of the sea is a phenomenon upon which we can always depend,” according to the National Ocean Service, which is part of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Tides are the regular rise and fall of the sea surface caused by the gravitational pull of the moon and sun and their position relative to the earth.”
The tides are constant, but they can rise higher and fall lower depending on the location of the sun and moon.
When the sun and moon are in alignment — as was the case with the full moon on Sunday — their combined gravitational pull results in exceptionally high tides, known as Spring Tides.
That is the case at the moment in the Suez, with water levels rising some 18 inches above normal. The most recent high tide peaked at 11:42 a.m., and the next will peak around midnight.
High tides occur 12 hours and 25 minutes apart, according to NOAA. It takes six hours and 12.5 minutes for the water at the shore to go from high to low, or from low to high.
This is the window for salvage crews to free the Ever Given. Each time the tide rises, the 220,000-ton vessel stands a better chance of becoming buoyant, and the scores of tugboats can use the tidal forces to help them in their struggle to free the ship.
But every time the tide falls, new stresses are put on the hull of the ship and the dangers rise.
The tidal flows in the Suez were at their peak Sunday and Monday, meaning this is a critical moment to finally free the ship. If the salvage crews cannot build on their progress to completely free the ship before the day is out, the tides will not be as favorable for weeks.
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Suez Canal Authority, via Associated Press
EPA, via Shutterstock
Pictures of the ship, from satellite views to those on the ground, reveal the true scale of the issue.
Oil prices fell and then rose again Monday as news reports suggested that the Suez Canal drama might be drawing to a close.
Prices dipped more than 2 percent early in the day after tugboats and dredgers succeeded in partly freeing the giant containership Ever Given, which has been blocking the canal since early last week. News reports raised the prospect that the tankers waiting at the entrances to the canal might be able to transit within days and deliver their cargoes to Europe and Asia.
But then prices crept back up again after the Suez Canal authorities said there was more work to be done before maritime traffic could resume. By midday in London, Brent crude, the international benchmark, was selling for $65.15 a barrel, up 0.9 percent on the day.
The Suez Canal is a key chokepoint for oil shipping, but so far the impact on the oil market of this major interruption of trade flows has been relatively muted. Though prices jumped after shipping on the canal was halted, oil prices still remain below their nearly two-year highs of about $70 a barrel reached earlier this month.
Analysts say that traders are focused on other factors beyond the logjam, including the reimposition of lockdowns in Europe that may hold back the recovery of oil demand from the pandemic.
From a global perspective, oil supplies are considered adequate, and the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, Russia and other producers, the group known as OPEC Plus, are withholding an estimated 8 million barrels a day, or about 9 percent of current consumption, from the market. Officials from OPEC Plus are expected to meet by video conference on Thursday to discuss whether to ease output cuts.
The operators of the Ever Given have said that the vessel ran aground because of the high winds of a sandstorm. While shipping experts said that wind might have been a factor, they also suggested that human error may have come into play.
Egyptian officials offered a similar assessment at a news conference on Saturday.
“A significant incident like this is usually the result of many reasons: The weather was one reason, but maybe there was a technical error, or a human error,” said Lt. Gen. Osama Rabie, chief of Egypt’s Suez Canal Authority.
The ship’s operators had said this week that its stacked containers had essentially acted like a giant sail amid the sandstorm.
But villagers in nearby Manshiyet Rugola noted that other ships in the same convoy had passed through the canal without incident. So had previous ships in previous storms, they pointed out.
“We’ve seen worse winds,” said Ahmad al-Sayed, 19, a security guard, “but nothing like that ever happened before.”
Shipping experts have asked the same question.
“I am highly questioning, why was it the only one that went aground?” said Capt. Paul Foran, a marine consultant who has worked on other salvage operations. “But they can talk about all that later. Right now, they just have to get that beast out of the canal.”
General Rabie said that ship captains are asked to keep any material that might be required for an investigation. He noted that 12 northbound ships had passed through the canal ahead of the Ever Given that day, and another 30 ships had traveled through from the opposite direction.
Last year, General Rabie said, 18,840 ships had traversed the canal without an accident.
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After 10 years of hard labor — during which tens of thousands of Egyptian workers died — the barrage of the Suez plains reservoir was breached on Nov. 17, 1869.
For the first time, waters of the Mediterranean flowed into the Red Sea and the canal was opened for international navigation. For nearly a century, it was mostly controlled and operated by the French and British.
In 1956, President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt nationalized the waterway. But almost as soon as his government took control, it was forced to briefly close after an invasion by an expeditionary force of British, French and Israeli soldiers.
The canal was reopened in 1957 and, firmly under Egyptian control, it became a symbol of the end of the colonial era.
A second closing occurred after the June 1967 War with Israel and lasted until 1975, when Egypt and Israel signed the second disengagement accord.
President Anwar el-Sadat called the reopening the “the happiest day in my life,” according to an account of the event in The New York Times.
He “stood in an admiral’s white uniform on the bridge of the destroyer Sixth of October as it cut a thin chain across the canal’s entry and sailed south from Port Said harbor at the head of a ceremonial convoy.”
Doves were released to celebrate the moment.
The saying goes that all good things must come to an end. But when it was announced that the ship that was stuck in the Suez Canal for days had been set partially afloat again — and could possibly be freed before the end of the day on Monday — social media users lamented the news.
“PUT IT BACK” became a trending topic on Twitter in the United States.
In the five days that it has blocked the canal, the gargantuan Ever Given had single-handedly snarled global trade, shaking up global shipping paths and costing billions of dollars.
But the light relief that the vessel’s situation had brought to the world? Priceless, in some people’s eyes.
Thousands of people identified with the canal and the vessel’s stubborn determination to stay lodged across the vital waterway.
Others shared handy guides on how everyone could do their bit to help.
The photo of a tiny digger working away at the mammoth task of trying to unstick the stuck ship firmly established itself as one of the most shareable memes 2021 has produced so far.
And after closely monitoring the situation, many shared their tongue-in-cheek answers to getting the boat dislodged, if only the teams attempting the rescue would listen.
After the news of the partial refloating, how long do internet users have to squeeze in the last of their jokes about the Ever Given? It’s anyone’s guess.
While President Sisi of Egypt declared his countrymen had “succeeded in ending the crisis,” shipping officials warned that the efforts to completely free the vessel were ongoing.
So is the ship still stuck? For the website built specifically for that question, the answer on Monday was: “Sort of?”