(CNN) — Efforts to dislodge the huge container ship stuck in the Suez Canal intensified Saturday as the backlog of ships at either end of the crucial waterway grew, heightening concerns over the impact of the blockage on global supply chains.
The Ever Given, a container ship almost as long as the Empire State Building is tall, ran aground in the Egyptian canal on Tuesday after being caught in 40-knot winds and a sandstorm.
Since then, dredgers have been working to remove vast quantities of sand and mud from around the port side of the vessel’s bow.
It is now hoped that tug boats can make use of the winds and tides Saturday to dislodge the 224,000-ton ship, the head of the Suez Canal Authority (SCA), Osama Rabie, told Egyptian news outlet Youm7.
Towing and tugging maneuvers for the ship started Friday evening, with nine tug boats pulling the front of the giant containership after dredging work was completed, Rabie said.
He added that tugging maneuvers require the availability of several factors, including winds and tides.
The US Navy in the Middle East also plans to send an assessment team of dredging experts to the Suez Canal as soon as Saturday to advise local authorities attempting to free the gigantic container ship, according to two US defense officials.
More than 260 ships are awaiting transit through the blocked waterway — including 13 carrying livestock — with the total number expected to rise as the crisis continues, maritime monitoring website Marine Traffic told CNN.
The blockage, in what is one of the world’s busiest and most important waterways, could have a major impact on already stretched global supply chains, with disruption escalating with each day that passes.
If the latest attempt to refloat the ship fails, the vessel — which measures 400 meters (1,312 feet) long and 59 meters (193 feet) wide — could still be freed by “early next week,” according to plans laid out by the head of a Dutch salvage company.
Peter Berdowski of Boskalis, a sister company of Dutch firm SMIT Salvage, told Dutch TV newscast “Nieuwsuur” that their Plan A is to try to wrest the ship free without removing containers from the deck.
“There are two heavy tugboats on their way,” he said Friday evening. “Together they have a pulling power of about 400 tons. So those are really big guys. They arrive this weekend.”
Most importantly, he said, a more thorough investigation has shown that the ship’s stern is “not entirely pushed into the clay.” That would allow tug boats to take advantage of lever power by pulling at the stern, he said.
He said the hope is that their pulling power — combined with dredging work now underway, a high tide of 40 to 50 centimeters next week, and the “lever power” of the ship’s stern being relatively free — would be enough “to release the ship sometime early next week.”
If that fails, Berdowski also laid out a plan B.
“In parallel, we are already mobilizing a crane,” he said. “This will also be delivered this weekend, which will enable us to remove containers from the front of the ship.”
He said that would potentially involve removing up to 600 containers, to lighten the load on the ship’s bow, and thus on the canal bank.
“Removing from the ship is one thing, but you have to also get rid of those 600 containers somewhere,” he said. “Directly next to the ship is just desert. So the removal of those containers also becomes a puzzle.”
That could mean a further delay of days. “But the most important is that we are in principle lining everything up to, in a logical sequence, taking the steps that are necessary,” Berdowski said.
His optimistic forecast will be welcome news to many. Shipping experts warned earlier this week that it could take days or even weeks to free the ship.
Fears for livestock
Meanwhile, billions of dollars’ worth of vital cargo and sensitive products are backlogged on the vessels whose way is blocked, including ships carrying livestock destined for different countries in Europe and Asia.
The EU director of NGO Animals International Gabriel Paun warned that thousands of animals being transported on 13 vessels — mostly Romanian — could be at risk of dying if the situation is not resolved in the next few days.
More ships carrying livestock are currently approaching the Suez Canal, Paun said.
“We are sitting in front of a major tragedy if the channel is not released in the next 24 hours because there are vessels that will run out of [livestock] food and water in the next two days,” Paun said.
Some ships have food and water for six more days and “if decide today to return to Romania, then they have a chance — but if the blockade lasts between two and six more days we will have a disaster,” Paun added.
One ship carrying livestock, the Nabolsi, has been sailing for 21 days after departing from Colombia on March 6, and is now awaiting passage by the blocked canal with animals on board, Marine Traffic spokesman Georgios Hatzimanolis said.
Each day that passes comes at a high cost to companies and countries whose trade has been held up by the gridlock. About 12% of the world trade volume passes through the Suez Canal, and it usually handles about $10 billion a day in cargo.
More than 18,800 ships with a net tonnage of 1.17 billion tonnes passed through the canal during 2020. That’s an average of 51.5 ships per day.
At least 10 ships, including oil and LNG tankers and container ships, had rerouted away from the canal as of Friday, according to Marine Traffic and data intelligence firm Kpler.
“There are already now multiple ships … bypassing [the route from the Mediterranean into the canal] and are now going south … it is the right point in time to make that decision,” said Lars Jensen, the head of Sea Intelligence Consulting, a firm provides consultancy to the shipping industry.
“So for now, it will appear that the vessels that are waiting in line [in the canal], would simply cross [their] fingers and hope that this will be resolved,” he added.
The Indian government on Friday said it had advised its shipping lines to explore the option of rerouting of ships via the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa while the situation in the canal is resolved, according to a statement from the Indian Ministry of Commerce and Industry.
It noted that such rerouting usually takes 15 additional days.
This Suez Canal route is used by Indian exporters and importers for trade worth $200 billion with North America, South America and Europe, the statement said. The ministry added that it would identify and prioritize perishable cargo for movement.
Even before the Ever Given ran aground, global supply chains were being stretched to the limits, making it much more expensive to move goods around the world and leading to shortages of some products. A prolonged closure of the key route between Asia, Europe and North America would only make matters worse.
Discussing the issue of potential damages claims, Toshiaki Fujiwara, senior managing director of Shoei Kisen KK, said Friday that “the company has not received any claims at this point,” adding that “it may take one [to] two or several years to come up with those details.”
Evergreen Marine, the Taiwanese company which operates the ship, has claimed that Shoei Kisen KK bears responsibility for the accident, Fujiwara confirmed.
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