ON top of the recent disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and thousands of containers being lost overboard in the North Pacific, another incident with a large container vessel is causing further disruption to the delivery of containerised goods, including supplies of urgently required medical equipment and personal protective gear. 

The ultra large container vessel (ULCV) MV Ever Given, on its way from Asia to Europe, is currently stuck in the Suez Canal blocking all other vessel traffic north and south-bound through the canal. 

As of Sunday (28 March), more than 300 vessels are held up at the southern and northern entrances of the canal as well as midway through the canal. 

The Ever Given is 400 metres long, which is more than twice the width of the canal and it is firmly stuck with its bow in more than a metre of sand on one side of the canal and its stern on the opposite side. 

The vessel has a capacity of approximately 20,000 TEU and is fully loaded with ten-high containers on deck. 

Eight tugs and a cutter dredger are currently on the scene endeavouring to pull the ship free, but so far to no avail. 

The ship 

The Ever Given was built in 2018, flagged in Panama, is owned by Japanese company Shoei Kisen Kaisha, is chartered by Evergreen Shipping in Taiwan and is managed by Bernard Schulte Management. 

It has a crew of 25 Indian seafarers on board. It appears that last Tuesday the ship encountered a dust storm with high wind and ended up careering into the side of the canal at a speed of approximately 13 knots. 

The canal 

The Suez Canal is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world and connects ports in Asia with those in the Mediterranean and Europe. Every day more than 50 ships transit through the canal, which represents a combined value in freight of more than US$10 billion and 12% of global trade. 

The alternative shipping route is via the Cape of Good Hope, but this can add up to 10 days to the voyage. The canal, which was originally built in the late 19th Century, has been widened and deepened several times. In 2016 a large part of the canal was duplicated with another channel running parallel to the original one to avoid incidents like this. However, the part of the canal (at the 151 km North mark) where Ever Given is stuck allows one-way traffic only. 

Ever Given salvage efforts 

According to a Dutch salvage expert engaged by the ship’s owner to try to free the ship, the bow being stuck firmly in the sand will make it hard to pry the ship off the canal bank. It will also be difficult to get salvage equipment to the site. Apparently, the forward section of the ship is also taking on water. 

Salvaging is usually done by lightening the ship by lifting containers off the deck and shifting or pumping out ballast water. There are very few floating cranes in the world that can lift 10-high containers off a 20,000-TEU vessel and getting those cranes on site will be a major logistical and time-consuming exercise. 

A powerful suction dredger has begun moving sand away from the bow. The salvors have so far managed to free the rudder and propellers from the other bank. 

The salvage team is now waiting for two powerful tugs to arrive in the next few days. The hope these tugs, in conjunction with the other tugs already on site, will be able to pull the ship’s bow off the bank. 

Canal or cape? 

Until Ever Given is moved, shipowners will have to make the difficult decision. They can proceed to the north or south entrance of the canal and wait for the logjam to clear. Or they can reroute their vessels around the Cape of Good Hope, which in some cases might add 10 days, and substantial costs, to the vessel schedule. Several shipowners have already made the decision and have ordered their vessels to change course and head south. 

The effects of the blockage will be mostly felt in Europe as consumer goods from Asia will be held up. Oil prices might see a spike if the blockage continues for any length of time.

In Australia, we will most likely see little effect of the blockage as most of our trade is directly with Asian ports with no need to transit the canal. There is currently only one direct container shipping service from Europe to Australia that uses the canal. Several vehicle carriers en route to Australia are also stuck, so customers might have to wait a bit longer for their imported European cars. 

Having transited the canal several times myself in my seafaring days, I follow the salvage efforts with interest and look forward to reading the investigation report when released in due course.