Optimism but concern as megaship still stuck in Suez

Mohamed Abouelenen
·4-min read

Hope rose Sunday salvage efforts would free a mammoth container ship blocking the Suez Canal for six days, crippling international trade and causing multi-million-dollar losses.

The MarineTraffic and VesselFinder applications said two tugboats were heading to the vital waterway to bolster the salvage operation, while experts pinned hope on a high tide to help refloat the vessel.

The Italian-flagged Carlo Magno and the Dutch-flagged Alp Guard were in the Red Sea en route to join over ten other tugboats deployed in the Suez Canal, the ship-tracking websites said.

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.

The crisis has forced companies to reconsider re-routing vessels around Africa's Cape of Good Hope, a longer and more expensive way to travel between Asia and Europe.

Billions of dollars-worth of cargo is now stalled at either end of the Suez Canal and each passing day results in millions of dollars in losses for Egypt and commercial enterprises around the world.

Several notes of optimism were struck on Saturday, including from Suez Canal Authority (SCA) chief Osama Rabie, who told reporters the megaship could be afloat by Sunday night.

"We could finish today or tomorrow (Sunday), depending on the ship's responsiveness" to high tides, he said.

Rabie later told an Egyptian news channel the ship "moved 30 degrees from left and right" for the first time late Saturday.

"It is a good sign," he said, adding that 14 tugboats were deployed around the stricken vessel and salvage crews were working round the clock.

- Ships re-routing -

Salvage teams pressed efforts to remove sand around the ship, with 27,000 cubic metres (over 950,000 cubic feet) cleared so far at a depth of 18 metres, SCA spokesman George Safwat said Sunday.

A high tide was expected to start Sunday night.

"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," Plamen Natzkoff, an expert at VesselsValue, has said.

Despite some predictions that the megaship could be refloated soon, Lloyd's List, a shipping data and news company, said Sunday there was a "surge" in the number of vessels opting to go around Africa.

"Most major container lines are now diverting ships round Cape of Good Hope and warning of supply chain disruption ahead. Some are starting to reject bookings," it said on Twitter.

Richard Meade, an editor at Lloyd's List, added: "Sources close to the salvage operation told me this morning that optimism within the team of experts on site was rising and they were hoping that the vessel could be moved within the next 24-48 hours. But the lines have clearly made their call already."

French shipping giant CMA-CGM told AFP Sunday two of their Asia-bound vessels would be re-routed around the Cape of Good Hope, and that they were considering air or rail transport for some clients.

A study published Friday by German insurer Allianz said the blockage could cost global trade $6-10 billion a day, shaving off some 0.2 to 0.4 percentage points of annual trade growth each week.

"The problem is that the Suez Canal blockage is the straw that breaks global trade's back," the report said.

"First, suppliers' delivery times have lengthened since the start of the year and are now longer in Europe than during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic."

- 'Human error' -

The 400-metre (1,300-foot) long, 200,000-tonne MV Ever Given, veered off course in the Suez Canal on Tuesday, with officials blaming 40-knots gusts and a sandstorm for the accident.

But Rabie on Saturday said "technical or human errors" could be behind the grounding of the Taiwan-run, Panama-flagged container ship near the southern end of the canal.

Almost as long as New York's Empire State Building is high, the ship is diagonally blocking the 193-kilometre (120-mile) long canal, and more than 320 ships are stalled at either end, Rabie said.

Egypt is losing some $12-14 million in revenue from the canal for each day it is closed, Rabie added, while Lloyd's List has said the blockage is holding up an estimated $9.6 billion-worth of cargo each day between Asia and Europe.

In a sign of the knock-on effects, authorities in war-wracked Syria said they had to ration already scarce fuel supplies, as the Suez crisis hit Syrian oil imports and the arrival of a ship carrying fuel and other oil products.

Romania's animal health agency said 11 ships carrying livestock out of the country were also impacted, with NGO Animals International warning of a potential "tragedy" affecting some 130,000 animals.

Egypt's agriculture ministry sent three veterinary teams to check on livestock stuck at sea and to provide fodder for the animals, state-run Al-Ahram news website said Sunday.

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