SUEZ CANAL AUTHORITY / HO / EPA-EFE / Shutterstock
The Suez Canal may be humanity’s greatest ever shortcut. Slicing through Egypt’s north-east corner, the 120-mile waterway connects the Mediterranean and Red seas, saving ships on the Asia-Europe route a 6,000-mile circumnavigation around Africa – a 12-day voyage transformed into a 12-hour transit. World powers and 21st Century pirates have fought over the thin blue line which accounts for 12 per cent of the world’s total trade.
But that crucial trade artery is now blocked. On Tuesday morning, the Ever Given – one of the biggest cargo ships in the world – ran aground on its way from China to Rotterdam as it headed northbound through the canal, suffering a power failure. At 400 metres, the vessel is nearly as long as the Empire State Building. And it ended up stuck sideways in a passage of water which, at its narrowest, is just 205 metres wide.
The race to move the ship is now in its third day. At least 150 ships laden with oil, automotive parts and consumer goods have now accumulated on both sides of the Suez in this painfully slow moving crisis. Approximately $10 billion worth of fuel and products, bound for far reaches of the planet, are now stuck in an aquatic traffic jam. Meanwhile, a tiny digger has been pictured beside the 220,000-tonne megaship, making its operator an internet celebrity.
Ever since, tugboats, dredgers and – yes – diggers have been at the scene. But it’s unclear how long it will take until traffic can resume. The Suez Canal divides Africa and Asia. That means the Ever Given is currently straddling two continents: its stern remains in African waters, its bow is resting on Asian land.
Dredgers and tugboats
The current strategy of dredging and tugging remains the best bet in getting the Suez Canal flowing again, according to Sal Mercogliano, a former merchant mariner and associate professor of history at North Carolina’s Campbell University. “When a ship goes ashore, it pushes the bottom out of the way. The bow gets on top of the dirt. You’d want to move that dirt out of the way and then pull her back off with tugboats.”A fleet of dredgers continually works on the Suez due to the waterway naturally soaking up. That’s good news for the Ever Given – if they can all reach the vessel. “Where are they? South or north? Because she’s blocking the canal. If they’re in the wrong position that’ll be a problem,” Mercogliano says.
SUEZ CANAL AUTHORITY / HO / EPA-EFE / Shutterstock
The Ever Given’s bow ended up pushed into the canal’s eastern bank, resting up against the shore. But it’s not as straightforward as digging away some mud and then pulling the ship free. “The collision can create a suction between the vessel and the mud, making it hard to break,” adds Mercogliano. Instead of pulling, pivoting seems to be the way to go. “You’d want to use tugboats to pivot her, so rather than have her bow facing at 2 o’clock and stern at 8 o’clock, you turn her counter-clockwise, so her stern faces 6 o’clock again.”
On Wednesday night, Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement, the Ever Given’s technical manager, said that dredgers were working to clear sand and mud from around the vessel. Tugboats, in conjunction with Ever Given’s winches, were working to shift the ship. However, progress has been slow. The Ever Given may have been swung slightly, but it’s still very much stuck.
Lightening the load
Taking some of the 20,000 containers currently aboard the Ever Given – and easing just some of the 220,000-tonne load – seems like a no-brainer. But it’s not that simple. “It’s actually very difficult to take boxes off,” explains Mercogliano. “There aren’t many ports you can go to where cranes can reach her and it’s almost impossible to find a floating crane to bring in to get enough containers off. So lightening her is very difficult.”
But the ship’s sheer size and weight has to be considered in that its bow is still wedged against the eastern bank. Given that its longer than the canal is wide, the concern would be having both the bow and stern ashore – and her middle floating. “It’s like putting your car on blocks, with the blocks underneath your two bumpers,” adds Mercogliano. “You don’t want to create a sagging motion in between and the fear is putting stresses on the hull. Ships aren’t designed for that, they’re designed to float.”
The worst case scenario would be trying to push the Ever Given off and the vessel cracks. “You wouldn’t just have a fuel spill, but conceivably a vessel loss.” That would require a massive salvage operation moving the ship out the way, and the canal would be closed for months as goods and debris are retrieved.
With progress on the Ever Given agonisingly slow – and the vessel becoming the subject of Austin Powers three-point turn memes – should the steady queue of ships building north and south of the Suez quit while they can? Should they up-anchor, reroute and set sail? “No, not yet,” says Georgios Hatzimanolis of live maritime tracker MarineTraffic. “Rerouting adds 12 to 13 days to a journey and the fuel costs involved are considerable.”
Unfortunately, rerouting means taking the Cape Route of centuries past: circumnavigating around Africa. “Even if it’s tomorrow, it’s better to wait one or two days in line than take a two-week trip around Africa into Europe or Asia,” adds Hatzimanolis. There are huge costs involved, too. Rates vary, but a typical transit across the Suez costs upwards of $500,000. Reversing and setting off for Africa would add a serious chunk to the final bill. Then there’d be the issue of who pays up. “I’m not sure the charters are willing to take that extra cost – and the shipping companies won’t either.”
If ships can’t be rerouted, could the cargo be instead? Could we see intricate logistics and repatriation missions where goods are offloaded and delivered by road? “Getting containers onto land won’t work for tankers – you’re not going to find a fleet of trucks large enough to transport all of that,” Hatzimanolis explains. “You may get your package to Egypt, but then how will you get it to China? The easiest thing is to stay patient and wait it out.”
Reiner Keller, who works for a forward freighting company based in the south-west of Germany, says that his firm has cargo aboard the Ever Given. “We have everything from pillow covers to cables and wires for car manufacturing on there. Those goods were meant to arrive at Rotterdam Port, with Germany the final destination. Our company has used the vessel – and the canal – regularly in the past.”
Currently, there have been no plans to reroute the shipment – despite patience wearing thin. “We have already received some very unpleasant reactions from our customers, even though our company merely books the container slots on the vessel as per vessel schedule provided by the shipping lines.”
Waiting it out
It’s still unclear what exactly caused the Ever Given’s power failure – and how it ended up wedged horizontally across the waterway. According to the Suez Canal Authority, the ship lost its ability to steer amid high winds and a sandstorm. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as dragging the vessel back into position, flicking a switch and piloting it away. “The Egyptians’ priority won’t be the Ever Given – it’ll be getting the canal flowing and pushing the vessel to the side,” says Mercogliano, who has travelled down the Suez three times. “It’s an easy navigation because you can’t get lost and it’s one-way, but you can lose visibility entirely when a sandstorm kicks up.”
With no motorway-style hard shoulder, the ship can’t stay stranded in the water for long. Its fate may lie in the Great Bitter Lake. Roughly a third of the way up the Suez northbound – and 30 kilometres north of the Ever Given’s current position – the saltwater lake is used as a passing lane. Vessels there can lie in anchorage. It’s also the final resting place of the Yellow Fleet – the dozen or so ships which were left stranded in the Suez as a result of the Six-Day War. Far from allowing the Ever Given to be claimed by the sea, the ship will likely be towed to a nearby port. The cargo will be offloaded and the vessel will undergo minor repairs. “It would have to be towed to a shipyard if necessary,” adds Mercogliano. “She may have to be drydocked for a hull inspection.”
Mercogliano says that high tide is coming at the end of March, which would give the rescue team the best shot at moving the Ever Given. Waiting that long, however, would be catastrophic for global shipping, which was already operating at breakneck speed to catch up from the impact of Covid. The three-day delay to trade will already have a big knock-on effect, potentially driving up fuel costs. “Many people will have to change plans,” explains Hatzimanolis. “The Ever Given was headed to Rotterdam with many containers going by rail into central and eastern Europe – those train operators will have to adjust schedules and capacity.”
For now, the best course of action is to sit, wait and hope that the Ever Given can be towed relatively quickly and safely. “They call the Suez Canal a ‘choke point’ and what you are seeing now is a graphic demonstration of that,” says Mercogliano. “If it shuts, it shows how vulnerable our logistics and supply chain is – we all depend on just-in, just-out logistics. That’s the importance of the Suez Canal.”
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