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A new Suez crisis: How a ship got stuck in the canal and what it means for global trade

Satellite image of stuck cargo ship
A satellite image shows the cargo ship Ever Given wedged in the Suez Canal near Suez, Egypt, on Thursday.
(Planet Labs / Associated Press)

It’s the mishap that stopped a thousand ships — well, at least a couple of hundred so far. The mammoth container ship Ever Given remained beached in the Suez Canal on Thursday, blocking the vital waterway and placing a mega-sized obstacle in the path of a shipping industry already crippled by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Ever Given has been stuck since Tuesday, along with hundreds of other ships bearing billions of dollars’ worth of goods and energy supplies. Executives the world over are wondering when the canal can resume normal operations, even as the ship has triggered a great deal of jokes and memes on the internet.

For the record:

10:10 a.m. March 25, 2021A previous version of this story said the Ever Given’s length was equivalent to three Empire State Buildings laid end to end. The correct equivalent is one Empire State Building.

Here’s a look at how the situation developed and what it could mean for global shipping:

What happened?

The Ever Given, one of the world’s largest so-called ultra-large container ships, was en route from China to Rotterdam in the Netherlands when it began its passage through the Suez Canal, the 120-mile waterway that connects the Red Sea to the Mediterranean and that was used by more than 19,000 ships in 2019. (That averages to more than 50 ships per day.)

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About 7:45 a.m. Tuesday, as 46-mph winds raged and a regionwide sandstorm reduced visibility, the Ever Given’s bow plowed into the eastern bank of the Suez Canal nearly 95 miles from its southern entrance, according to the Egyptian government’s Suez Canal Authority.

Though the ship is wedged at a roughly 45-degree angle, its 1,312-foot length — equivalent to the Empire State Building laid on its side — means that it has completely blocked the canal in an area where the waterway is only a single lane. (The Egyptian government had deepened the canal’s main waterway in 2015 and opened a parallel 22-mile channel.)

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The Ever Given weighs more than 200,000 tons and bears almost the same weight in containers stacked several stories high on its deck.

That had some parties questioning the official explanation, said Richard Meade, an editor at the London-based Lloyd’s List Maritime Intelligence.

“People have been slightly incredulous, saying how could a gust of wind move a ship of this size,” Meade said. “But the high flat sides of the containers stacked up to the top of the ship — it’s not inconceivable that is to blame.”

John Konrad, founder of the shipping news website gCaptain.com, agreed.

“All these steel containers act like a giant sail,” he said. “The wind presses against a huge steel wall that’s many stories tall.”

What has been the blockage’s impact?

Since the Ever Given ran aground, a traffic jam of an estimated 210 ships has formed at the entrances of the Suez Canal, Meade said.

That may seem like a small number, especially considering that about 90% of the world’s traded goods are transported by sea. But with billions of dollars of value passing through the canal every day in container-stored goods alone, “delays are costly,” Meade said.

And that’s not to mention dry bulk shipping and energy supplies, with the latter amounting to roughly one-tenth of the world’s daily global oil consumption, according to Kpler, a market research firm. (As of Wednesday, Kpler counted 29 ships carrying energy supplies either waiting or approaching the canal.)

Crude oil markets have already seen a roughly 3% increase in the price per barrel in reaction to the blockage.

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Whether the incident will have more significant consequences depends largely on how long the situation will last. If the ship is dislodged in the coming two days, Meade said, “it will be a minor blip.”

But more delays will cause cascading effects on arbitrage trade flows, freight costs and insurance rates, said analysts at S&P Global Platts, who reported that traders considered the situation an “arbitrage killer” if it wasn’t soon resolved.

If the crisis drags on, at some point the waiting ships will have to face the prospect of making a U-turn and going around the Cape of Good Hope instead — adding three weeks to their journey.

“Alternative supply chains would have to be completely constructed,” said Meade.

What’s being done to dislodge the ship?

In the hours after the Ever Given’s grounding, Egyptian authorities dispatched eight tugboats — one of them high-powered — to heave the ship off the embankment, while a number of excavators removed sand near the vessel’s bow. The ship’s crew also reduced weight by releasing ballast water used to help balance the ship. A day later, dredgers were brought in, with crews hoping high tide in the evening would help lift the Ever Given free.

Those attempts failed. On Wednesday night, authorities moved vessels out of the queue to enter the canal — a sign that the wait could be a long one. They also called in Boskalis, a Dutch dredging and heavy lift company, which was set to begin work Thursday morning.

But any attempt to move the Ever Given faces considerable challenges given the sheer size and weight of the ship, Meade said.

“Because it’s so heavily laden, you have to make sure you don’t pull it and create a bigger problem by rupturing the hull,” he said.

Also, the uneven canal bed means that the Ever Given’s front and back are lying on sandbars at each side of the waterway, Boskalis Chief Executive Peter Berdowski said in an interview with Dutch television.

“It is like an enormous beached whale. … You come to the conclusion that it’s not possible to pull it loose,” he said.

One relatively simple way to reduce the ship’s weight would be to remove fuel, said Konrad of gCaptain.com, which would require bringing in barges to offload some of the Ever Given’s tanks. Failing that, they’ll have to consider the containers, but that isn’t as straightforward as it might seem.

Shifting containers around the vessel to lighten the load at each end is not an option, said Sal Mercogliano, a professor of maritime history in North Carolina.

“You can’t have her sag in the middle. If you do, she could break in the middle of the Suez,” he said. “You can’t just take the weight off the ends. It has to be entirely off her.”

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But moving those containers off the deck has never been tried before, Konrad said. For one thing, the heaviest containers are placed at the bottom of the pile and the lightest ones on top. And finding suitable equipment will also take a long time.

“Where’s the closest crane that can reach that high? We don’t know. Where are the super-powerful tugs that can pull this off? We don’t know,” Konrad said.

Helicopters are another option, Meade said, but it would mean lifting containers one by one, a lengthy — and extremely costly — process.

For now, authorities are hoping to take advantage of high tide again Thursday evening, which is expected to be higher than in previous days and will peak toward the end of the month.

After that, it’s unclear.

“The more stuck the ship is, the longer an operation will take. It can take days to weeks,” Berdowski said. “Also considering bringing in all the equipment we need, that’s not around the corner.”

What has been the reaction?

In an acknowledgment of the difficulties caused, Shoei Kisen Kaisha, the Japanese company that owns the Ever Given, issued an apology on Thursday, saying in a statement on its website that it was “working to resolve the situation as soon as possible.”

“We would like to apologize to all parties affected by this incident, including the ships traveling and planning to travel through Suez Canal,” the statement said.

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On a lighter note, comedians and many on the internet have found common cause with the stricken Ever Given.

“In our own little way, we are all that ship,” writer and designer Chaz Hutton said on Instagram, where he posted a picture of the ship as a representation of workflow and procrastination.

Late-night show host Jimmy Fallon dubbed the captain of the ship “dockblocker.”

“Do you know how stressful it is to parallel park when there’s someone behind you? Imagine blocking a whole hemisphere,” he said Wednesday.

“I also feel bad for the guys behind that ship, because it’s not like there’s a lot of alternate routes,” fellow talk-show host Trevor Noah said. “Can you imagine if you are on one of those ships looking at your Waze app like, ‘What? Go around Africa?’ ”


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