As Blocked Ships Back Up the Suez Canal, Hopes Turn to Tide and Time

Officials reported steady progress in dislodging the giant cargo ship blocking the crucial maritime route, but challenges remain. Here’s the latest.,

LiveUpdated March 28, 2021, 7:39 p.m. ETMarch 28, 2021, 7:39 p.m. ET

A new tugboat has joined the ranks of those struggling to free the giant cargo ship blocking the crucial Suez Canal maritime route. But many challenges remain.

The container ship remained lodged across the Suez Canal on Sunday.
The container ship remained lodged across the Suez Canal on Sunday.Credit…Mahmoud Khaled/Getty Images

With the costs of the closure of one of the world’s most vital maritime arteries growing by the day, salvage teams hoped on Sunday to take advantage of the full moon and swelling tides to dislodge the giant cargo ship stuck in the Suez Canal.

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 Ever Given had moved.

Granted, it did not go far — just two degrees, or about 100 feet, according to shipping officials. But that came on top of progress in the days before, when canal officials said dredgers had managed to dig out the rear of the ship, freeing its rudder.

By Saturday afternoon, they had dredged 18 meters down into the canal’s eastern bank. But officials cautioned that the ship’s bow remained firmly planted in the soil and that the operation still faced significant hurdles.

The company that oversees the ship’s operations and crew, Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement, said a dozen tugboats were helping, the latest a specialist tug registered in the Netherlands, the ALP Guard, arrived on the scene on Sunday.

“Further attempts to refloat the vessel will continue this evening once the tug is safely in position along with the 11 tugs already on site,” the company said.

Several dredgers, including a specialized suction dredger that can extract 2,000 cubic meters of material per hour, were digging around the vessel’s bow, the company said.

Lt. Gen. Osama Rabie, the chairman of the Suez Canal Authority, said that water had started running underneath the vessel. “We expect that at any time the ship could slide and move from the spot it is in,” he told a news conference on Saturday.

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Salvagers are determined to free the vessel this weekend, but their best chance may be on Monday, when a spring tide will raise the canal’s water level as much as 18 inches, analysts and shipping agents said.

It is a delicate mission. Salvage crews are trying to move the ship without unbalancing it or breaking it apart.

With the ship 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 brings hope the ship can 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.

The ship’s manager said that in addition to the tugboats and dredgers, high-capacity pumps will draw water from the vessel’s ballast tanks to lighten the ship.

But with each passing day, the situation is bringing global supply chains 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.

Some ships have already decided not to wait, U-turning to take the long way around the southern tip of Africa, a voyage that could add weeks to the journey and mean more than $26,000 a day in fuel costs.

If the Ever Given breaks free by Monday, the shipping industry can absorb the inconvenience, analysts said, but beyond that, supply chains and consumers could start to see major disruptions.

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A ship has been wedged in the Suez Canal in Egypt since Tuesday evening, shutting down traffic in both directions.CreditCredit…Sima Diab for The New York Times

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.

Late Saturday, there was a brief celebration when the tugboats managed to move the 1,300-foot ship. The tugboats let the horns blow, hopeful that they could build on their progress when the high tide returned on Sunday, when the increased water level could help the ship break free.

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 cannot get the job done, they could 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.

“I don’t think there’s any question they’ve got everything they need,” he said. “It’s just a question of, it’s a very big problem.”

An aerial view of ships stranded in the Red Sea on Saturday.
An aerial view of ships stranded in the Red Sea on Saturday.Credit…Mahmoud Khaled/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The government of Syria has said that it will 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.

With the log of ships now stuck outside the canal growing to over 300 on Sunday, the threat to the oil supply in Syria was an early indication of the rapidly expanding and escalating ripple effects caused by the disruption of trade through the vital maritime artery.

Already, shipping analysts estimated, the colossal 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.”

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.”

The 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.”

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The Ever Given container ship on Saturday remained lodged in the Suez Canal in Egypt, where it had been stuck since Tuesday. Authorities said the jam has caused a backlog of more than 300 ships waiting to cross.CreditCredit…Sima Diab for The New York Times

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.

Pictures of the ship, from satellite views to those on the ground, reveal the true scale of the issue.

Underwater archaeology researchers at the location of the 1794 wreck of the Portuguese slave ship Sao Jose Paquete Africa, near the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa in 2013.
Underwater archaeology researchers at the location of the 1794 wreck of the Portuguese slave ship Sao Jose Paquete Africa, near the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa in 2013.Credit…Susanna Pershern, U.S. National Parks Service

Any gamble taken by shipowners to reroute around the blocked Suez Canal isn’t just costly and time-consuming — it’s also dangerous.

The alternate route, skirting southern Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, is infamous in maritime lore as one of the world’s most treacherous passages, littered with hundreds of wrecks and sometimes called “the Cape of Storms” and “the Graveyard of Ships.”

The phrase “Women and children first!” was first popularized from an emergency evacuation of the Birkenhead, a British vessel carrying troops and some civilians, which struck a submerged rock off the Cape of Good Hope in 1852. Of the 643 people aboard, 193 survived, a feat that historians attributed to the crew’s bravery in what became known as the Birkenhead Drill. It was further immortalized in a Rudyard Kipling poem, “Soldier an’ Sailor Too.”

In 1815, the Arniston, a merchant vessel that had made eight voyages from England to Asia, was caught in a violent storm off the Cape’s western coast and struck a reef. Only six men out of 378 passengers and crew survived the wreck, clinging to flotsam, making their way ashore and huddling for two weeks in a cave, where they subsisted off a salvaged bag of oatmeal. The nearby fishing village Waenhuiskrans, which means “wagon house cliff’ in Afrikaans, became known as Arniston and is a popular whale-watching spot.

So many wrecks lie off the Cape of Good Hope that they have enhanced the area as a tourism destination. South Africa even promotes a “Shipwreck Hiking Trail” along one stretch of coast where at least 120 vessels met doom from 1682 to 1992.

Modern-day mariners said the Suez Canal conundrum facing shippers was probably more a problem of time and expense, rather than the risk of becoming another statistic on the roster of the Cape of Good Hope’s shipwreck victims. But they did not discount the area’s legacy of danger.

Robin Knox-Johnston, who in 1968-69 became the first person to sail single-handed nonstop around the world and who also wrote a book about the Cape, said that Suez-bound shippers needed to add at least 14 days to voyages if they shifted to the Cape route to avoid the clog created by the stuck ship, the Ever Given of the Evergreen line.

“If they get the Evergreen vessel off in the next couple of days, the Cape route was the wrong answer, but if not….?,” Mr. Knox-Johnston, 81, wrote in an email. “I would not like to be faced with that decision, which has huge costs.”

While remnants of many shipwrecks have been discovered there, others have remained a mystery. In 1909, a 500-foot passenger steamer, the Waratah — sometimes called “Australia’s Titanic” — sank and disappeared en route from Durban to Cape Town. No trace of the ship or its 211 passengers and crew was ever found.

Wrecks wrought by the Cape’s dangers were not confined to military and civilian traffic. Ships of the slave trade also sank in the region’s storms and fogs.

One of the most notable was the 1794 destruction of the Sao Jose Paquete Africa, a Portuguese slave ship bound for Brazil’s sugar plantations, crammed with 400 to 500 enslaved people from what is now Mozambique below deck. The ship struck rocks 100 yards offshore near Cape Town and broke apart, many of the victims still chained. Half of the enslaved people and the entire crew survived.

Although the wreck was discovered in the 1980s, researchers didn’t determine the vessel’s true purpose until many years later, announcing the finding in 2015.

The origin of the Cape’s name is not clear. By some accounts, the Portuguese navigator Bartolomeu Dias devised the name in 1488 after rounding the coast on a return voyage. Others attribute the name to King John II of Portugal, who viewed the discovery as good omen that India could be reached from Europe by sea.

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.

A view of the Ever Given from a village along the bank of the Suez Canal.
A view of the Ever Given from a village along the bank of the Suez Canal.Credit…Sima Diab for The New York Times

The gargantuan container ship that has stymied world trade by getting stuck in the Suez Canal has towered over Umm Gaafar’s dusty brick house for four days now, humming its deep mechanical churr.

She looked up from where she sat in the bumpy dirt lane and considered what the vessel, the Ever Given, might be carrying in all those containers. Flat-screen televisions? Full-sized refrigerators, washing machines or ceiling fans?

None of which she or her neighbors in the tiny Egyptian hamlet of Manshiyet Rugola, population 5,000-ish, has at home.

“Why don’t they pull out one of those containers?” she joked. “There could be something good in there. Maybe it could feed the town.”

The Japanese-owned Ever Given and the more than 300 cargo ships now waiting to traverse the Suez Canal, one of the world’s most critical shipping arteries, could supply Manshiyet Rugola many, many times over.

In the village, whose name translates to “Little Village of Manhood,” traffic jams of any kind would be difficult to imagine ordinarily.

Donkey carts piled high with clover bumped down semi-paved lanes between low brick houses and green fields lined with palm trees, trash and animal dung. A teenager hawked ice cream from his motorcycle. Roosters offered profane competition to the noontime call to prayer.

Until the Ever Given showed up, the minarets of the unimposing mosques were the tallest structures around.

“Do you want to see the ship?” a young boy asked a pair of visiting journalists, bobbing in excitement under the window of their car. Ever since the earthquake-like rumble of the ship running aground jolted many awake around 7 a.m. on Tuesday, the Ever Given has been the only topic in town.

“The whole village was out there watching,” said Youssef Ghareeb, 19, a factory worker. “We’ve gotten so used to having her around, because we’ve been living on our rooftops just watching the ship for four days.”

It was universally agreed that the view was even better at night, when the ship glowed with light: a skyscraper right out of a big-city skyline, lying on its side.

“When it lights up at night, it’s like the Titanic,” said Nadia, who, like her neighbor Umm Gaafar, declined to give her full name because of the security forces in the area. “All it’s missing is the necklace from the movie.”

Umm Gaafar had asked to go by her nickname so as not to run afoul of the government security personnel who had passed through, warning residents not to take photos of the canal and generally spreading unease.

Nadia said she was too intimidated to take pictures of the ship at night — though she very much wanted to.

It’s a moment that has managed to wrap Bernie Sanders’s mittens, jokes about poor driving skills and timeless office humor into one.

Initially it was the sheer oddity of a ship being stuck in the Suez Canal, single-handedly snarling global trade in a world already mired in a pandemic, that grabbed the online world’s attention. But it was the photo of a tiny digger working away at its mammoth task that sealed the Ever Given’s fate as the foundation for thousands of relatable memes.

Was the digger — which was trying its hardest to dislodge the vessel despite a titanic size difference — the perfect metaphor for thinking we can make any dent in our to-do lists, finally manage to stop procrastinating or get our thousands of unread emails down to zero?

Was it the visual representation of the scant relief that a walk outdoors can offer from the doom and gloom of a pandemic-gripped world?

Or was it simply us trying to do our best despite the odds?

Perhaps we were just looking for solutions.

Soon, the 1,300-foot Ever Given was so splashed across social media feeds that its many colorful containers and the large white lettering spelling out the name of the company that operates the ship spawned a viral tweet showing people how to “steal his look.”

One woman got even more creative, adapting the melody of one of TikTok’s most famous sea shanties to tell the ship’s woeful tale.

After becoming the subject of meme after meme this past week, the stuck ship soon cross-pollinated with others of its ilk, including some of Bernie Sanders’s most unforgettable moments.

Then, following the playbook of similarly popular memes that have gone before it — like the fly on Mike Pence’s head — Twitter accounts popped up posing as the Ever Given and the “Guy With The Digger At Suez Canal,” drawing thousands of followers with their humorous takes.

And it wouldn’t be a fully fledged internet moment without a website built specifically to answer a simple question, which in this case was: Is that ship still stuck?

As of Saturday, the answer was still “Yes.”

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