What to Know About the Suez Canal, and How a Cargo Ship Got Stuck

It took 10 years and 1.5 million laborers to build in the 19th century, and one day and one giant ship to clog it in 2021. The shudders are being felt throughout the world’s maritime commerce.,

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Source: Satellite image by CNES, via Airbus

By Scott Reinhard

Published March 25, 2021Updated March 26, 2021, 4:12 p.m. ET

The 120-mile-long artificial waterway known as the Suez Canal has been a potential flash point for geopolitical conflict since it opened in 1869. Now the canal, a vital international shipping passage, is in the news for a different reason: A quarter-mile-long, Japanese-owned container ship en route from China to Europe has been grounded in the canal for days, blocking more than 100 vessels and sending tremors through the world of maritime commerce.

Here are some basics on the history of the canal, how it operates, how the vessel got stuck and what it means.

The canal is in Egypt, connecting Port Said on the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean via the Egyptian city of Suez on the Red Sea. The passage enables more direct shipping between Europe and Asia, eliminating the need to circumnavigate Africa and cutting voyage times by days or weeks.

The canal is the world’s longest without locks, which connect bodies of water at differing altitudes. With no locks to interrupt traffic, the transit time from end to end averages about 13 to 15 hours, according to a description of the canal by GlobalSecurity.org.

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A ship has been stuck in the Suez Canal in Egypt since Tuesday evening, after powerful winds forced the ship aground on one of the canal’s banks, shutting down traffic in both directions.CreditCredit…Khaled Elfiqi/EPA, via Shutterstock

The canal, originally owned by French investors, was conceived when Egypt was under the control of the Ottoman Empire in the mid-19th century. Construction began at the Port Said end in early 1859, the excavation took 10 years, and the project required an estimated 1.5 million workers.

According to the Suez Canal Authority, the Egyptian government agency that operates the waterway, 20,000 peasants were drafted every 10 months to help construct the project with “excruciating and poorly compensated labor.” Many workers died of cholera and other diseases.

Political tumult in Egypt against the colonial powers of Britain and France slowed progress on the canal, and the final cost was roughly double the initial $50 million projected.

The British powers that controlled the canal through the first two world wars withdrew forces there in 1956 after years of negotiations with Egypt, effectively relinquishing authority to the Egyptian government led by President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

ImageConstruction on the Suez Canal started in 1859 and took 10 years to finish.
Construction on the Suez Canal started in 1859 and took 10 years to finish.Credit…Otto Herschan Collection/Hulton Archive, via Getty Images

The crisis began in 1956 when Egypt’s president nationalized the canal after the British had departed. He took other steps that were deemed security threats by Israel and its Western allies, leading to a military intervention by Israeli, British and French forces.

The crisis briefly closed the canal and raised the risk of entangling the Soviet Union and the United States. It ended in early 1957 under an agreement supervised by the United Nations, which sent its first-ever peacekeeping force to the area. The outcome was seen as a triumph for Egyptian nationalism, but its legacy was an undercurrent in the Cold War.

The Suez crisis was also a theme in Season 2, Episode 1 of “The Crown,” the acclaimed Netflix series about Britain’s royals, as the British prime minister at the time, Anthony Eden, struggled over how to respond.

Egypt closed the canal for nearly a decade after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, when the waterway was basically a front line between Israeli and Egyptian military forces. Fourteen cargo ships, which became known as the “Yellow Fleet,” were trapped in the canal until it was reopened in 1975 by Mr. Nasser’s successor, Anwar el-Sadat.

A few accidental groundings of vessels have closed the canal since then. The most notable, until this week, was a three-day shutdown in 2004 when a Russian oil tanker ran aground.

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Ships anchored outside the Suez Canal, awaiting passage on Thursday.Credit…Khaled Elfiqi/EPA, via Shutterstock

The beached vessel, the Ever Given, which is operated by the Evergreen Shipping line, is one of the world’s largest container ships, about the length of the Empire State Building.

Although the canal was originally engineered to handle much smaller vessels, its channels have been widened and deepened several times, most recently six years ago at a cost of more than $8 billion.

Poor visibility and high winds, which made the Ever Given’s stacked containers act like sails, are believed to have pushed it off course and led to its grounding.

Salvagers have tried a number of remedies: pulling it with tugboats, dredging underneath the hull and using a front-end loader to excavate the eastern embankment, where the bow is stuck. But the vessel’s size and weight, 200,000 metric tons, had frustrated salvagers as of Thursday night.

Some marine salvage experts have said nature might succeed where tugs and dredgers have failed. A seasonal high tide on Sunday or Monday could add roughly 18 inches of depth to the canal, perhaps floating the ship.

That depends on how long the canal, which is believed to handle about 10 percent of global maritime commercial traffic, is closed. TradeWinds, a maritime industry news publication, said that with more than 100 ships waiting to traverse the canal, it could take more than a week just for that backlog to clear.

A prolonged closure could be hugely expensive for the owners of ships waiting to transit the canal. Some shipowners already have decided to cut their losses and reroute vessels that had been bound for the canal around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope instead.

The owner of the Ever Given is already facing millions of dollars in insurance claims and the cost of emergency salvage services. Egypt’s government, which received $5.61 billion in revenue from canal tolls in 2020, also has a vital interest in refloating the Ever Given and reopening the waterway.

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