Massive cargo ship turns sideways, blocks Suez Canal

May have been overcome by strong winds as it entered the Canal from the Red Sea

A cargo container ship that’s among the largest in the world has turned sideways and blocked all traffic in Egypt’s Suez Canal, officials said Wednesday, threatening to disrupt a global shipping system already strained by the coronavirus pandemic.

The MV Ever Given, a Panama-flagged container ship that carries trade between Asia and Europe, became grounded Tuesday in the narrow, man-made waterway dividing continental Africa from the Sinai Peninsula.

It wasn’t immediately clear what caused the Ever Given to turn sideways in the canal. GAC, a global shipping and logistics company, described the Ever Given as suffering “a blackout while transiting in a northerly direction,” without elaborating.

Evergreen Marine Corp., a major Taiwan-based shipping company that operates the ship, said in a statement provided to The Associated Press that the Ever Given had been overcome by strong winds as it entered the Suez Canal from the Red Sea but none of its containers had sunk.

An Egyptian official, who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity as he wasn’t authorized to brief journalists, similarly blamed a strong wind in the area for the incident. Egyptian forecasters said high winds and a sandstorm plagued the area Tuesday, with winds gusting as high as 31 mph (50 kph).

“All crew are safe and accounted for,” said Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement, which manages the Ever Given. “There have been no reports of injuries or pollution.” The management company denied the ship ever lost power.

The Ever Given’s bow was touching the canal’s eastern wall, while its stern looked lodged against its western wall, according to satellite data from MarineTraffic.com. Several tug boats surrounded the ship, likely attempting to push it the right way, the data showed.

An image posted to Instagram by a user on another waiting cargo ship appeared to show the Ever Given wedged across the canal as shown in the satellite data. A backhoe appeared to be digging into the sand bank under its bow in an effort to free it.

In this photo released by the Suez Canal Authority, the MV Ever Green cargo ship sits with its bow stuck into the wall of the canal after turning sideways and blocking traffic through the crucial East-West waterway for global shipping, March 24, 2021. SUEZ CANAL AUTHORITY/AP

The Egyptian official said tugboats hoped to refloat the ship and that the operation would take at least two days. The ship ran aground some 3.7 miles (6 kilometres) north of the southernly mouth of the canal near the city of Suez, an area of the canal that’s a single lane.

That could have a major knock-on effect for global shipping moving between the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea, warned Salvatore R. Mercogliano, a former merchant mariner and associate professor of history at North Carolina’s Campbell University.

“Every day, 50 vessels on average go through that canal, so the closing of the canal means no vessels are transiting north and south,” Mercogliano told the AP. “Every day the canal is closed … container ships and tankers are not delivering food, fuel and manufactured goods to Europe and goods are not being exported from Europe to the Far East.”

The Ever Given had listed its destination as Rotterdam in the Netherlands prior to getting stuck in the canal. The ship, built in 2018 with a length of nearly a quarter mile (400 metres) and a width of 193 feet (60 metres), is among the largest cargo ships in the world. It can carry some 20,000 containers at a time.

Opened in 1869, the Suez Canal provides a crucial link for oil, natural gas and cargo being shipping from East to West. Around 10% of the world’s trade flows through the waterway and it remains one of Egypt’s top foreign currency earners. In 2015, the government of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi completed a major expansion of the canal, allowing it to accommodate the world’s largest vessels.

The Suez Canal Authority suggested on Wednesday that vessels could still use the “original Canal,” which parallels the newer section opened in 2015, but the Ever Given ran aground before the new section of the canal, and it wasn’t immediately clear how use of the original route might help to alleviate the back-up. Bloomberg reported that as many as 100 vessels could be delayed in transiting the vital waterway.

“The SCA chairman sent a message of reassurance regarding the navigation movement in the Canal and its regular movement through the original Canal’s route, stressing that the Suez Canal will not spare any efforts to ensure navigation and the service international trade,” the SCA said in a statement.

The incident Tuesday marks just the latest to affect mariners amid the pandemic. Hundreds of thousands have been stuck aboard vessels due to the pandemic. Meanwhile, demands on shipping have increased, adding to the pressure on tired sailors, Mercogliano said.

“It’s because of the breakneck pace of global shipping right now and shipping is on a very tight schedule,” he said. “Add to it that mariners have not been able to get on and off vessels because of COVID restrictions.”

images via Suez Canal Authority, Planet Labs Inc