|Date||23–29 March 2021|
|Time||07:40 EGY (05:40 UTC)|
|Duration||6 days and 7 hours|
|Location||Suez Canal, Suez, Egypt|
Between March 23 and 29, 2021, the Suez Canal was blocked for six days after the accidental grounding of Ever Given, a Golden-class container ship, on the morning of 23 March. The 400-metre-long (1,300 ft) vessel was buffeted by strong winds, and ended up wedging itself across the waterway, bow and stern stuck in the canal bank, which prevented other vessels from passing through that part of the Suez Canal. Egyptian authorities said "there may have been technical or human errors" also involved. The obstruction was south of the section of the canal that has two channels, so there was no way for other ships to bypass Ever Given. The Suez Canal Authority (SCA) engaged Boskalis through its subsidiary Smit International to manage marine salvage operations.
The canal is one of the world's busiest trade routes, and the obstruction had a significant negative impact on trade between Europe and Asia and the Middle East. On 28 March, at least 369 ships were queuing to pass through the canal. This prevented an estimated $9.6 billion worth of trade. On 29 March, Ever Given was partially re-floated and moved by about 80% in the correct direction, although the bow remained stuck until the ship was finally freed by Egyptian, Dutch, and Italian tugs at 15:05 EGY (13:05 UTC) and started moving, under tow, towards the Great Bitter Lake, for technical inspection. The canal was checked for damage, and after being found to be sound, the SCA allowed shipping to resume from 19:00 EGY (17:00 UTC).
The Suez Canal, one of the world's most important trading routes, was opened in 1869. By 2021 approximately fifty ships per day travelled through the canal, about 12% of total global trade at the time. For much of its length, however, the canal is not wide enough to allow traffic to travel in both directions at once; convoys of ships must take turns transiting these segments of the waterway. An expansion project is underway, but significant portions of the canal remain single-lane.
Ever Given (IMO 9811000) was laid down on 25 December 2015, launched 9 May 2018, and completed 25 September 2018, replacing an earlier ship of the same name (IMO 8320901). Shoei Kisen Kaisha, a subsidiary of Japan's Imabari Shipbuilding, owns the ship. The operator is the Taiwan-based company Evergreen Marine and the vessel is managed by Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement. The vessel is registered in Panama. All crew were Indian nationals and none were injured in the incident. The ship's owners, Shoei Kisen Kaisha, have liability coverage for $3.1 billion. Evergreen's Protection and Indemnity (third party) liabilities insurance coverage is provided by mutual UK P&I Club. The ship is insured in the Japanese market. Insurance industry sources say the ship's owners could be facing insurance claims from the Suez Canal Authority (SCA) for loss of revenue and other ships whose passage has been impeded. Container ships of this size are typically insured for hull and machinery damage to an amount totalling between $100 and $140 million.
Bill Kavanagh, a National Maritime College of Ireland lecturer and former captain, has described sailing through the Suez Canal as "a very complex and high risk operation". Wind gusts will cause the container areas of vessels to "act like a sail" and thus affect the course of the ship. The momentum of a heavy ship, such as Ever Given, is difficult to counteract if blown off course.
The government of Egypt requires ships traversing the canal to be boarded by an Egyptian "Suez crew", including one or more official maritime pilots from Egypt's SCA who command the ship, taking over from the regular crew and the captain. There were two Egyptian SCA pilots on board at the time of the accident.
On 23 March 2021, at 07:40 EGY (05:40 UTC), Ever Given was travelling through the Suez Canal, when it was caught in a sandstorm. The strong winds, which reached 40 kn (74 km/h; 46 mph), resulted in the "loss of the ability to steer the ship," causing the hull to deviate. The ship then ran aground at the 151 km (82 nmi) mark (measured from Port Said on the Mediterranean Sea; 10 km (5.4 nmi) from Suez Port on the Gulf of Suez), and turned sideways, unable to free itself, blocking the canal on both sides. The crew consisting entirely of Indian nationals was accounted for and no injuries were reported. At the time of the incident, the ship was travelling from Tanjung Pelepas, Malaysia, to the Port of Rotterdam, Netherlands. It was fifth in a northbound convoy, with fifteen vessels behind it when it ran aground near the village of Manshiyet Rugola.
According to an analysis of data from ship tracking websites by Evert Lataire, head of maritime technology division at the University of Ghent, the bank effect, which may cause the stern of a ship to swing toward the near bank when operating in constricted waterway, may have contributed to the grounding, along with the lateral forces of west-to-east winds pushing sideways against the northbound ship. Since most of the focus of modern ship design is directed towards efficiency and stability at sea, the effects of hydrodynamics in shallow waters, especially in light of the rapidly growing size of ships in the past decade, remain somewhat obscure and in need of further study.
Over 300 vessels at both ends of the canal were obstructed by Ever Given, including five other container ships of similar size. These included 41 bulk carriers and 24 crude oil tankers. The affected vessels represented roughly 16.9 million tonnes (37 billion pounds) of deadweight. Some docked at ports and anchorages in the area, while many remained in place. The Ever Given's sister ship, Ever Greet, was affected by the disruption, as were two Russian Navy vessels: Steregushchiy-class corvette Stoikiy and Altay-class oiler Kola. These two vessels, believed to have been the only military vessels affected by the blockage, were conducting naval exercises in the area at the time. Kola had been involved in a minor collision with bulk carrier Ark Royal earlier that day; the two were anchored roughly 11 km (5.9 nmi) away from each other for the duration of the incident.
In the immediate aftermath of the grounding, the Suez Canal Authority engaged the Dutch company Royal Boskalis Westminster through its subsidiary SMIT Salvage to manage marine salvage operations. Their team of experts worked in close collaboration with the Canal Authority, calculating the timing and direction of efforts, and coordinating a team of Egyptian, Dutch, and Japanese workers. Tugs were needed to apply force to move the ship, by towing or pushing, and suction dredgers to remove sand and silt from under the bow and stern of the ship. High capacity pumps were to reduce or redistribute the weight of fuel oil and water ballast on the ship. If this was insufficient to refloat the ship, large floating cranes could be brought in to remove containers, but this would be a slow and difficult operation, with care needed to maintain the stability of the ship and avoid it breaking up. Some Egyptian officials suggested the possibility of using heavy lift helicopters, but none are capable of lifting a fully laden shipping container, which weighs about 30,480 kilograms (67,200 lb).
As a first step, vessels were moved from behind Ever Given to make room for the refloating operation. Fuel and nine thousand tonnes of ballast water were removed from the ship to help lighten it as heavy machinery, including an excavator, began work to dig the bow out. By 25 March, eight tugboats were assisting in the attempt to pull it free. Peter Berdowski, Chief Executive of Boskalis, stated on 25 March that such an operation "can take days to weeks".
On 25 March, the SCA suspended navigation through the Suez Canal until Ever Given could be refloated. The same day, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's advisor on seaports stated that he expected the canal to be cleared in "48–72 hours, maximum". The following day, the Suez Canal Authority said that its dredging operations were about 87 per cent complete.
On 27 March, the SCA said that 14 tugboats were trying to take advantage of that day's high tide and that more would arrive the following day if the latest attempt failed. Yukito Higaki, president of Shoei Kisen Kaisha, reported that the ship did not appear to be damaged, saying "The ship is not taking water. Once it refloats, it should be able to operate." There was no timeline of when the canal might be reopened. However, by 18:00 UTC, according to Egypt Today, the ship had moved by 17 metres (56 ft) towards the north. Delays in shipping could persist after Ever Given is freed from its current predicament, as vessels may face busy ports and additional delays before offloading. As of 27 March, more than 300 ships were delayed at both ends and in the middle of the canal, with others still approaching and others having altered their paths.
Addressing a press conference, Osama Rabie, SCA chairman, said that weather conditions were "not the main reasons" for the ship's grounding, adding that "there may have been technical or human errors," and that all factors would be looked into in the investigation on the incident.
On 28 March, efforts to dislodge the ship allowed for some movement of the ship's stern and its rudder at high tide, and SCA chairman Rabie said that water has been running under the ship again, and that "at any time the ship could slide and move from the spot it is in", additionally noting he hoped it would not be necessary to remove some of the 18,300 containers on board the ship, despite strong tides and winds complicating recovery efforts. This came as the Egyptian President, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, ordered preliminary preparations be made for lightening the ship's cargo. The seagoing tug Alp Guard, with a bollard pull of 285 tonnes, arrived that morning, almost doubling the towing capacity of the tugs.
The incident exposed a need to investigate issues of supply chain resilience and disruption to just-in-time manufacturing already facing shortages from COVID-19 pandemic impacts. The "complete disconnect of ship size development from developments in the actual economy" (OECD report, 2015), and the corresponding limitations of existing infrastructure to handle them – a process evident in the Suez, where expansion work on the northern end of the canal has been ongoing – led to the incident being described by Michael Safi in The Guardian as a "worst-case scenario that many saw coming". Events during the several days the canal was blocked highlighted the difficulties of saving larger ships, which requires more time and more equipment. If Ever Given had required intervention of floating cranes to remove some containers (assuming crane ships of sufficient capacity would have been available within any realistic time-frame), the process would have required larger equipment working for longer, and would have been likely to prolong the blockage by "days, even weeks".
On 29 March, the stern of Ever Given was refloated at 04.30 local time (02:30 UTC), and an Italian seagoing tug, the Carlo Magno, arrived, giving a further large increase in towing capacity. Ballast was adjusted, and towing timed to make maximum use of the ebbing tidal flow. At 15:05 local time (13:05 UTC) the ship was pulled free, following the king tide of a supermoon. It took 14 tug boats at high tide to dislodge the 224,000-ton vessel.
Satellite data showed that the ship's bow had been partly moved from the shore, although it remained stuck at the edge of the canal. The ship's stern had swung around and was in the middle of the waterway. The vessel was finally freed and moving again as of 15:05 local time, and was towed to the Great Bitter Lake for inspection. The canal authority informed shipping agencies that the canal was to reopen for shipping from 19:00 local time (17:00 UTC), after a search of the bottom and soil of the Suez Canal had found it was sound and had no issues. By the time traffic through the Suez Canal resumed, more than 400 ships were waiting: approximately 200 in the Red Sea, under 200 in the Mediterranean Sea; and around 50 in the Bitter Lakes.
Divers and the lead investigator for the SCA started inspecting the ship for damage, as well as probing the crew to determine the ultimate causes of the grounding, on 31 March. In the meantime, Ever Given was stationary in the Great Bitter Lake which forms part of the Suez Canal. The backlog of ships delayed by the blockage was finally cleared on 3 April. The canal authority also reported that a report on the investigation they had launched was forthcoming, with results expected to be announced within the next few days. As of 6 April, the ship remained in the lake pending litigation, due to the "labyrinthine ownership structure of container ships", as shown by a lawsuit filed against the ship’s operator by the ship`s Japanese owners. Issues of jurisdiction and competing investigation results could further complicate the matter. Requests for compensation by the Suez Canal Authority, for a billion dollar sum, on grounds of lost revenue and the cost of the salvage operation could also delay the voyage of Ever Given. The head of the canal authority, Osama Rabie, noted that the ship could continue if the investigation concluded without incident and if an agreement was reached as to compensation. Legal battles could however prevent the departure of the ship. Concerns were raised for the crew, who would be effectively detained until the incident was resolved.
While the ship's owner indicated willingness to agree to compensation, it might not shoulder the burden alone. The ship's Japanese owner, Shoe Kisen, declared "general average" on the morning of 4 April. This principle of maritime law states that "that the owner of cargo on board a ship should contribute to the cost of rescuing the vessel during a major casualty event". Additional costs for owners of cargo could amount to a significant sum: the last time this was invoked, following the 2018 fire on the Maersk Honam, the adjustor fixed sums amounting to 54% of cargo value for owners to release their cargo. This could be particularly damaging to owners of uninsured shipments, such as small businesses. A settlement was still under negotiation between the ship`s owners and the authorities, as Rabie told the Associated Press that he was hoping for an out-of-court settlement, arguing that "bringing the case before a court would be more harmful to the firm than settling with the canal's management". The inquiry into the grounding progressed as investigators analysed data from the Voyage data recorder (commonly referred to as a ship's "black box"), but no final conclusion had been reached, with Rabie telling he could not offer further details on an ongoing investigation.
Maritime and logistics experts warned that the incident will likely result in shipping delays of everyday items for customers around the world. Maritime historian Sal Mercogliano told the Associated Press: "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." Lloyd's List estimates the value of the goods delayed each hour at US$400 million, and that every day it takes to clear the obstruction will disrupt an additional US$9 billion worth of goods. Rabie estimated that Egypt loses $12–14 million per day due to the closure.
Michael Lynch, president of Strategic Energy and Economic Research, attributed a rise in oil prices to "people buying in after recent declines in oil prices, with the Suez closing the trigger factor." James Williams, energy economist at WTRG Economics, said that in light of existing stocks "a few days of slowdown in [oil] delivery is not critical to the market." On the contrary, the oil prices had plummeted after the Suez Canal became unblocked on 29 March 2021, as a result of delayed supply of oil from other cargo ships.
The event had delayed goods, which only impacted industries with existing shortages, such as with semiconductors, thereby influencing markets already at risk of collapsing. To mitigate shortages of goods in the long term, future shipments could be ordered earlier than normal until the difference has been made up. However, a consultant at another firm noted that even a short-term disruption at the Suez Canal would have a domino effect for several months along the supply chain. Some freight forwarders noted that demand for alternative means of transportation was expected to rise within the next few weeks on Europe to Asia routes, as a consequence of shippers seeking to avoid the disruption and uncertainty caused by the blockage of the canal.
Concern was raised about livestock transported through the route, with 130,000 sheep being transported to Romania alone; Gabi Paun of Animals International stated "Every hour counts for the sheep and the fatality rate will only grow ... even if the law was respected and the ships were carrying 25% more food ... it would nonetheless have been finished by now". The European Commission has previously discovered many ships used for transporting animals are not fit for that purpose, as well as a lack of oversight on the transport of animals among several member states. As a response to the concerns surrounding live exports from said incident, Romania had temporarily suspended all live exports.
The default alternative route for maritime traffic between Asia and Europe is to go around Africa via the Cape of Good Hope, a trip which can add up to two weeks to journey time, with this alternative having already been taken by some ships as of 26 March. Russia has used this incident to promote its Arctic shipping routes as a shorter alternative to carrying goods around Africa.
Concerns about piracy, due to the unprecedented concentration of valuable shipping in such a small area, has prompted shipping companies to make inquiries to the Bahrain–based United States Fifth Fleet about security.
Various internet memes about the incident have been published, alongside numerous jokes. "Ever Given Ever Ywhere", a web app that allows users to place Ever Given anywhere in the world also went viral. Jokes and memes have been posted by users on mobile-platform TikTok depicting their personal interpretations of the incident. Individual suggestions for fixing the incident in a joking manner were also spread on Twitter, alongside comments over the relevance of some users' feeling that their personal issues corresponded to the ship being stuck. Mods were created for Microsoft Flight Simulator showing the ship grounded in the canal. On the day that the Ever Given was unblocked, Google celebrated the event by adding in an Easter egg where searching "Suez Canal" or "Ever Given" would display an animation of boats moving along the sidebar.
An April's Fool story published by the Guardian, claiming plans to build a second canal in Egypt, also gained traction in Turkish media, before it was marked as a fool at noon by the Guardian (as common for such humourous fabrications).
Rumours, targeting the first Egyptian female ship captain, were also spread by some Middle Eastern sources, apparently based on a doctored Arab News publication. This highlighted issues of gender in the marine industry, where only 2% of jobs are held by women. The captain in question was first mate on board the Aida IV, which was in Alexandria at the time of the incident.
[Boskalis] announce that our team of experts, working in close collaboration with the Suez Canal Authority, successfully refloated the Ever Given on 29 March at 15:05 hrs local time, thereby making free passage through the Suez canal possible again
unclear when traffic through the canal would return to normal
The ship came out intact and it has no problems. We’ve just searched the bottom and soil of the Suez Canal and thankfully it is sound and has no issues, and ships will pass through it today
an obligatory 'Suezcrew', who joined for the transit and had their own cabin, and a pilot who took control of the ship. This is standard procedure in modern shipping: ships often take on pilots in harbour areas or tricky passages because they have better local knowledge. Technically the pilot took command of the bridge, though the pilot we had was too busy eating his way through the entire menu, and dozing, to be particularly commanding. The second officer had to keep waking him up for instructions.
ships are required to have a canal pilot come aboard, someone who knows the canal and pilots it through. Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement said there were two canal pilots from the Suez Canal Authority aboard when the ship ran aground
Rough calculations suggest westbound traffic is worth around $5.1bn daily while eastbound traffic is worth $4.5bn.
Local media reported that the effort was making headway. [...]
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