Hopes rise of ending Suez Canal blockage in days

Bassem Aboualabass
·4-min read

Hopes rose on Saturday that a mega-ship blocking Egypt's Suez Canal could be refloated within days, even as the crisis forced companies to consider re-routing vessels around the southern tip of Africa.

The president of Shoei Kisen -- the Japanese firm which owns the giant container vessel -- said it could be freed from the canal bed later Saturday, while the parent company of the Dutch salvage firm in charge of the operation eyed a target of early next week.

Millions of dollars are at stake. Billions of dollars of cargo are now stalled at either end of the vital shipping lane between Asia and Europe, with their owners mulling whether to wait it out or take the longer and more expensive route around the Cape of Good Hope at the cost of up to 12 additional days at sea.

The MV Ever Given, which is longer than four football fields, has been wedged diagonally across the span of the canal since Tuesday, blocking the waterway in both directions.

At a press conference in Japan Friday, Shoei Kisen president Yukito Higaki told local media there were no signs of damage to its engines and various instruments.

"The ship is not taking water. There is no problem with its rudders and propellers. Once it refloats, it should be able to operate," Higaki said, according to the Asahi Shimbun.

The company aims to free the ship "tomorrow night Japan time", he added, the Nikkei news agency said.

"We are continuing work to remove sediment as of now, with additional dredging tools."

In the Netherlands, the executive director of Royal Boskalis, parent company of Smit Salvage, set a less demanding target.

"With the ships we'll have in place by then, the earth we've managed to dredge, and the high tide, let's hope that'll be enough to budge the ship at the start of next week," Peter Berdowski told a public television chat-show late Friday.

"We are already in the process of installing a crane on land. That will allow us to eventually remove all the containers from the foredeck, which could involve hundreds of containers."

The blockage has caused a huge traffic jam of more than 200 ships at both ends of the 193-kilometre (120-mile) long canal and major delays in the delivery of oil and other products.

Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement (BSM) -- the ship's technical manager -- said Friday that an attempt to refloat the vessel had failed.

"The focus is now on dredging to remove sand and mud from around the port side of the vessel's bow," the firm said.

Salvage crews worked through the night, using a large dredging machine under floodlights.

- Stakes 'too high' -

But the vessel with gross tonnage of 219,000 and deadweight of 199,000 has yet to budge, forcing global shipping giant Maersk and Germany's Hapag-Lloyd to look into re-routing around the southern tip of Africa.

"Shipping companies are being forced to confront the spectre of taking the far longer route around the Cape of Good Hope to get to Europe or the east coast of North America," said Lloyd's List, a shipping data and news company.

"The first container ship to do this is Evergreen's Ever Greet... a sistership to Ever Given," it said.

Egypt's Suez Canal Authority said the mega-ship veered off course and ran aground when winds reaching 40 knots whipped up a sandstorm that affected visibility.

Lloyd's List said data indicated 213 vessels were now stalled at either end of the canal, which links the Mediterranean and the Red Sea.

The blockage was holding up an estimated $9.6 billion worth of cargo each day between Asia and Europe, it said.

The canal authority has said between 15,000 and 20,000 cubic metres of sand would have to be removed in order to reach a depth of 12-16 metres and refloat the ship.

If those efforts fail, salvage teams will look to unload some of the Ever Given's cargo and take advantage of a spring high tide due to start on Sunday night to move the vessel.

Plamen Natzkoff, an expert at VesselsValue, said teams would likely throw even more resources behind their efforts in the coming days to make the most of that opportunity.

"If they don't manage to dislodge it during that high tide, the next high tide is not there for another couple of weeks, and that becomes problematic," he said.

"The stakes are too high for it to take months."

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