Massive container ship stuck in Suez Canal, blocking world's busiest shipping route

A skyscraper-sized container ship that is wedged across Egypt's Suez Canal, blocking all traffic in the vital waterway has been partially refloated, an encouraging sign for the dozens of ships backed up waiting for their turn to go through.

50 ships a day normally pass through the canal between the Mediterranean and Red Sea

A container ship was hit by strong wind and ran aground in Egypt's Suez Canal. (VIA REUTERS)


  • Roughly 100 other ships are now either waiting to enter or stuck in the canal

A container ship almost as long as the height of the CN Tower and twice as heavy is wedged across Egypt's Suez Canal, having blocked all traffic in the vital waterway for more than a day — with no sign that it's moving any time soon.

The MV Ever Given, a Panama-flagged ship that carries cargo between Asia and Europe, ran aground Tuesday in the narrow, man-made canal dividing continental Africa from the Sinai Peninsula. Images showed the ship's bow had collided with the eastern wall of the canal, while its stern looked lodged against the western wall.

Nearly a dozen tugboats worked together to try to nudge the obstruction out of the way as ships hoping to enter the waterway began lining up in the Mediterranean and Red Seas.

An earlier report Wednesday suggested that the ship has been "partially refloated," but Ahmed Mekawy, an assistant manager at marine agency GAC, says that report was wrong, and that the 400-metre-long ship with a sailing weight of 220,000 tonnes was still very much stuck late in the day local time.

Price of oil spikes

It remains unclear when the route, through which around 10 per cent of world trade flows and which is particularly crucial for the transport of oil, would reopen.

The refloating operation was temporarily suspended late Wednesday and will be resumed early Thursday, according to canal service provider Leth Agencies.

About a million barrels of oil pass through the canal on a normal day, and the backlog of delayed deliveries is already causing the price of oil to spike.

This satellite image from Planet Labs Inc. shows the cargo ship MV Ever Given stuck in the Suez Canal near Suez, Egypt, on Tuesday. (Planet Labs/The Associated Press)

The North American oil benchmark known as West Texas Intermediate gained more than $4 US or more than six per cent to just over $61 a barrel. Brent, the type of oil used in Europe and the blend most commonly passing through the canal every day, was up by even more.

Rory Johnston, managing director at Toronto-based investment firm Price Street Inc., said in an interview with CBC News on Wednesday that as long as the ship is moved within a day or two, the impact on the oil market should be muted.

"I think this is going to be a temporary thing and no one expects us to go on for a really long time, but it's also not a simple thing to get one of the world's largest ships ... wedged between one of the tightest choke points on earth."

About 10 per cent of the world's crude passes through the Suez canal every day, so if it is closed off for any length of time, the cost and difficulty or rerouting it will be borne by customers.

"All of this hinges on this being resolved in kind of a day or two. Once you get into a couple days long or a week, it becomes a very very different ballgame and people are going to have start diverting cargo around the southern tip of Africa," Johnston said, noting that impacts on supply chains beyond oil may start "cascading" from there.

Officials on the ground stressed that everything that can be done is being done.

"The Suez Canal will not spare any efforts to ensure the restoration of navigation and to serve the movement of global trade," vowed Lt. Gen. Ossama Rabei, head of the Suez Canal Authority.

Singapore-based Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement, which manages the Ever Given, said all 20 members of the crew were safe and that there had been "no reports of injuries or pollution."

High winds a possible cause

It wasn't immediately clear what caused the Ever Given to become wedged on Tuesday morning. GAC said the ship had lost power and the ability to steer.

Bernhard Schulte, however, denied the ship ever lost power.

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

An Egyptian official, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to brief journalists, similarly blamed a strong wind.

Egyptian forecasters said high winds and a sandstorm plagued the area Tuesday, with winds gusting as much as 50 kilometres per hour.

However, it remained unclear how wind alone would have been able to push a fully laden vessel. Typically, Egyptian pilots take over ships passing through the canal, but it wasn't immediately clear if that happened with the Ever Given.

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 satellite images and data. A backhoe appeared to be digging into the sand bank under its bow in an effort to free it.

The ship ran aground some six kilometres north of the southerly 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."

About 30 ships are gathered at the southern entrance of the canal, waiting to enter. Another 30 or so are stuck in the canal, while approximately 40 are trying and failing to get in from the North. (Scott Galley/CBC)

Idling ships warned to be alert

Already, some 30 vessels waited at Egypt's Great Bitter Lake midway on the canal, while some 40 idled in the Mediterranean near Port Said and another 30 at Suez in the Red Sea, according to canal service provider Leth Agencies.

There were concerns that idling ships in the Red Sea could be targets after a series of attacks against shipping in the Mideast amid tensions between Iran and the U.S.

"All vessels should consider adopting a heightened posture of alertness if forced to remain static within the Red Sea or Gulf of Aden," warned private marine intelligence firm Dryad Global.

The Ever Given, built in 2018 with a length of nearly 400 metres and a width of 59 metres, is among the largest cargo ships in the world.

It can carry some 20,000 containers at a time. It previously had been at ports in China before heading toward Rotterdam in the Netherlands.

The stranding Tuesday marks just the latest to affect mariners amid the pandemic.

Hundreds of thousands have been stuck aboard vessels due to COVID-19 restrictions. 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."

With files from The Associated Press and Reuters

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