CAIRO — Trying to convey the sheer scale of the nearly quarter-mile-long container ship that has been stuck in the Suez Canal since Tuesday evening, some news outlets compared it to the length of four soccer fields. Others simply called it gigantic.
But the main thing to know was this: After powerful winds forced the ship aground on one of the canal’s banks, it was big enough to block nearly the entire width of the canal, producing a large traffic jam in one of the world’s most important maritime arteries.
By Wednesday morning, more than 100 ships were stuck at each end of the 120-mile canal, which connects the Red Sea to the Mediterranean and carries roughly 10% of worldwide shipping traffic. Only the Panama Canal looms as large in the global passage of goods.
“The Suez Canal is the choke point,” said Capt. John Konrad, founder of the shipping news website gCaptain.com, noting that 90% of the world’s goods are transported on ships. It “could not happen in a worse place, and the timing’s pretty bad, too.”
The potential fallout is vast. The vessels caught in the bottleneck or expected to arrive there in the coming days include oil tankers carrying about one-tenth of a day’s total global oil consumption, according to Kpler, a market research firm, to say nothing of the rest of the cargo now waiting to traverse the canal.
And if the ship is not freed within a few days, it would add one more burden to a global shipping industry already reeling from the coronavirus pandemic, creating delays, shortages of goods and higher prices for consumers.
The ship, the Ever Given, was heading from China to the port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands. It ran aground amid poor visibility and high winds from a sandstorm that struck much of northern Egypt this week, according to George Safwat, a spokesman for the Suez Canal Authority. The storm caused an “inability to direct the ship,” he said in a statement.
A spokesman for GAC, a shipping agent at the canal, cautioned in an email that there was “up to this moment no progress” on clearing the canal. It was unclear how long the rescue operation might take.
Lt. Gen. Osama Rabie, the head of the canal authority, said that an older section of the canal was being used to help ease the traffic jam in the waterway.
Looking tiny against their quarry’s bulk, swarms of tugboats raced to try to wrench the Ever Given free, and a front-end loader strained to dig it out from the canal’s eastern embankment, where its bow sat wedged. Continued high winds, along with the sheer size of the ship, complicated the task, according to GAC.
The ship’s size has magnified every challenge. Though a gust of wind may seem an improbable David to the ship’s Goliath, the containers stacked at least nine-high atop the deck would have acted like a giant sail, Konrad said, giving Tuesday’s high winds more surface area to push against.
As container ships have grown in scale, culminating in a new generation of ultra-large ships that includes the 1,312-foot-long Ever Given, the Suez Canal and global ports have struggled to keep pace. Parts of the canal were widened several years ago, though not enough to eliminate the tension for pilots charged with navigating it. Crew sizes have not increased to match the vessels, said Konrad, and technology for piloting through narrow channels has not improved.
Then there is the matter of rescue. If the ship’s bulk makes it impossible to drag out by tugboat, a salvage crew may need to lighten it by removing containers, pumping out the water tanks that serve as its ballast and dredging around the bow and stern, he said.
When a similarly sized ship, the CSCL Indian Ocean, became stuck in 2016 near the port of Hamburg, Germany, it took 12 tugboats and nearly a week to free it.
The Suez Canal is a key artery for oil flows from the Persian Gulf region to Europe and North America. Roughly 5% of globally traded crude oil and 10% of refined petroleum products passed through the canal before the pandemic, estimated David Fyfe, chief economist at Argus Media, a market research firm.
After the canal was snarled, there was a 2.85% jump in the price of Brent crude, the international bench mark, on Wednesday to $62.52 a barrel. But Fyfe said that because the demand for oil remained relatively weak amid the pandemic, a short-term outage was unlikely to have a lasting effect on the market.
If Egyptian authorities are able to move the Ever Given to the side of the waterway within two to three days, the episode will likely prove a minor inconvenience to the shipping industry. Shipping companies generally build in extra days to their schedules to account for delays.
But if the ship’s extraction takes longer, it could pose a substantial risk for an already-overwhelmed industry. Global trade has been disrupted as locked-down American consumers ordered vast quantities of factory goods from Asia, yielding a monthslong shortage of shipping containers, the metal boxes that carry parts and finished products around the globe.
The blockage of the Suez Canal will affect the movement of things like exercise bikes and printers built in Chinese factories destined for U.S. households, and soybeans grown on U.S. farms and shipped to food processors in Southeast Asia.
If it remains clogged for more than a few days, the stakes would rise significantly.
“If that’s going to be a knock-on delay, then you’ll see piling up and bunching up of ships on their arrival in Europe as well,” said Akhil Nair, vice president of global carrier management at SEKO Logistics in Hong Kong. “It’s just one more factor that we didn’t need.”
Ships now stuck in the canal will find it difficult to turn around and pursue other routes given the narrowness of the channel.
“It would be a technical nightmare to try and get them out,” said Alan Murphy, the founder of Sea-Intelligence. “And where do they go?”
But first comes the technical quagmire of freeing the Ever Given. Pictures from the canal showed the container-laden ship sitting sideways at such an angle that the name of the company that operates it, Evergreen, was clearly visible from the ship behind it.
“Ship in front of us ran aground while going through the canal and is now stuck sideways,” an Instagram user who gave her name as Julianne Cona, a ship’s engineer onboard another vessel, posted alongside a photo of the stricken ship Tuesday evening. “Looks like we might be here for a little bit …”
Despite the rescue efforts, “from the looks of it that ship is super stuck,” she wrote. “They had a bunch of tugs trying to pull and push it earlier but it was going nowhere.”