Suez Canal: Owner of cargo ship blocking waterway apologises

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Media caption,

A salvage company, working to free the Ever Given, says the operation could take weeks

The Japanese owner of the giant cargo ship that has been blocking Egypt's Suez Canal since Tuesday has apologised for the disruption to global trade.

Shoei Kisen Kaisha said it was trying to resolve the situation as soon as possible, but that dislodging the Ever Given was proving extremely difficult.

Marine and salvage engineers failed in their latest attempt on Thursday.

The 400m-long (1,300ft), 200,000-tonne vessel became wedged across the canal amid high winds and a dust storm.

Evergreen Marine, the Taiwanese firm that operates the ship, has said salvage experts are working with the captain and the Suez Canal Authority to design a more effective plan for refloating it.

The blockage is creating long tailbacks in the waterway, with more than 150 vessels currently waiting in the area to pass.

About 12% of global trade passes through the canal, which connects the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea and provides the shortest sea link between Asia and Europe.

An alternative route, around the Cape of Good Hope on the southern tip of Africa, can take two weeks longer.

Image source, Cnes2021, Distribution Airbus DS
Image caption,
The Ever Given is almost as long as Manhattan's Empire State Building is high

"In co-operation with local authorities and Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement, a vessel management company, we are trying to refloat [the Ever Given], but we are facing extreme difficulty," the owner, Shoei Kisen Kaisha, said in a statement on Thursday.

"We sincerely apologise for causing a great deal of worry to ships in the Suez Canal and those planning to go through the canal," it added.

Industry sources told Reuters news agency that even if the Ever Given was refloated quickly its owner and insurers faced claims totalling millions of dollars for the delays and extra costs accrued by other companies.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Diggers on the ground are clearing sand and mud away from the Ever Given's bow

Toshiaki Fujiwara, an official at Shoei Kisen Kaisha, told AFP news agency that the ship had an insurance policy, but that he was unaware of the details or any costs involved at this stage.

"It's just the beginning," he said.

Global crude oil prices rose 6% on Wednesday after traffic through the canal was suspended, though they fell more than 4% on Thursday.

A flotilla of tugboats, as well as dredgers and diggers resumed efforts to move the Ever Given at high tide on Thursday morning, after stopping overnight.

Later, Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement said in a statement that an attempt to refloat the vessel at about 08:00 was not successful, and that another attempt would be made in the afternoon.

The management company added that a team of salvage experts from Smit Salvage had been appointed and were attending to the ship.

Image source, Cnes2021, Distribution Airbus DS
Image caption,
All navigation through Suez Canal has been temporarily suspended

The CEO of Smit Salvage's parent company, Boskalis, warned that it could take weeks, rather than days, to refloat the ship.

"It is like an enormous beached whale. It's an enormous weight on the sand," Peter Berdowski told the Dutch TV station NPO.

"We might have to work with a combination of reducing the weight by removing containers, oil and water from the ship, tug boats and dredging of sand."

'Atmosphere of uncertainty'

By Sally Nabil, BBC News, Ismailia

The suspension of navigation through the Suez Canal has created an atmosphere of uncertainty. No-one knows exactly when things will go back to normal. The canal is congested. Dozens of ships are waiting to resume their journeys.

Experts say that the salvage efforts might work when the tides gets stronger early next week. If attempts to free the ship fail, one of the options would be to unload part of its cargo. But that would take a long time too.

The authorities are not giving much detail, and the situation is very tense. The strategic waterway is a huge asset for Egypt. Not only is it a source of national pride, but it also provides much needed foreign cash to the Egyptian economy, which is already struggling.

The Ever Given ran aground on Tuesday as it sailed northwards through the canal on its way from China to the Netherlands with two canal pilots on board.

Evergreen Marine said the ship "was suspected of being hit by a sudden strong wind, causing the hull to deviate from waterway".

Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement said initial investigations had ruled out any mechanical or engine failure as a cause of the grounding.

Shoei Kisen Kaisha said the Ever Given's 25-member crew, who are all Indian nationals, were safe and that no oil leaks had been detected.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Eight tug boats are pushing and pulling the Ever Given in an attempt to refloat it

Almost 19,000 ships passed through the canal in 2020, according to the Suez Canal Authority - an average of 51.5 ships per day.

Service provider Leth Agencies said a total of 156 vessels waiting in the area on Thursday, and that three behind Ever Given were being assisted and escorted back to Port Suez in the south.

Peter Sand, chief shipping analyst at BIMCO, told the BBC that the delayed vessels were not only container ships, but oil and gas tankers and bulk carriers transporting grain supplies.

"We may see production stop at conveyer belts in Europe shortly," he warned.

In 2017, a Japanese container vessel blocked the canal after it ran aground following reported mechanical issues. The Egyptian authorities deployed tug boats and the ship was refloated within hours.

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