When the Ever Given container ship ran aground in the Suez Canal on Tuesday, blocking shipping traffic through the key global thoroughfare, the world looked on in wonder at how the authorities would unstick the behemoth.
Days later, the vessel is still grounded despite frantic efforts to free it, and fears have swelled over the cascading costs. Already, shipping analysts estimate, the traffic jam has held up nearly $10 billion in trade each day.
Some experts have grown hopeful after the ship’s rudder was freed on Friday night.
“Yesterday at 10:30 p.m., the rudder moved and the engines started rolling,” Lt. Gen. Osama Rabie, chief of Egypt’s Suez Canal Authority, said at a news conference on Saturday. “We were hoping for a big push, but the tide was very low.”
He added, “I cannot give a timetable for when we will be done.”
So as a salvage team and canal authorities continued their battle Saturday to dislodge the four-football-field-long leviathan.
From the deck of a tugboat in the Suez Canal, where the Egyptian authorities allowed journalists to glimpse the salvage operation for the first time on Saturday evening, the Ever Given looked like a fallen skyscraper, lights ablaze. Three boats that barely reached halfway up the word EVERGREEN painted on the ship’s side, for its Taiwanese operator, had nosed up to its starboard side, keeping it stable.
A powerful tugboat sat near the ship’s stern, waiting for the next attempt to push and pull it out. Analysts and canal officials had said that they would try again at high tide, when the increased water level could help the ship break free. But high tide, which was forecast for a little after 10:30 p.m., came and went without progress.
Global supply chains were another day closer to a full-blown crisis.
Vessels packed with the world’s goods — including cars, oil, livestock and laptops — usually flow through the waterway with ease, supplying much of the globe as they transverse the quickest path from Asia and the Middle East to Europe and the East Coast of the United States.
“Look around you — 90 percent of what’s in the room came from China,” said Alan Murphy, the founder of Sea-Intelligence, a maritime data and analysis company. “All global retail trade moves in containers, or 90 percent of it. So everything is impacted. Name any brand name, and they will be stuck on one of those vessels.”
Easing the bottleneck depends on the salvagers’ ability to clear away the sand and mud where the Ever Given is stuck and to lighten the ship’s load enough to help it float again, all while tugboats try to push and pull it free.
Though determined to free the vessel this weekend, salvagers’ best chance may arrive on Monday, when a spring tide will raise the canal’s water level by up to 18 inches, analysts and shipping agents said.
The ship’s technical manager, Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement, said that larger tugboats have arrived to help, with two more due on Sunday. Several dredgers are digging around the vessel’s bow, and high-capacity pumps will draw water from the vessel’s ballast tanks to lighten the ship, the company said.
Officials will also need to clear other vessels from the area, a huge coordination effort, and account for the possibility that the Ever Given’s grounding may have rearranged the seabed. Any shifting in the seabed could make it harder for other ships to pass through the area even after the Ever Given has been moved, said Capt. Paul Foran, a marine consultant who has worked on salvage operations.
With the ship sagging in the middle, its bow and stern both caught in positions for which it was not designed, the hull is vulnerable to stress and cracks, both experts said.
Mr. Mosselhy said teams of divers were inspecting the hull and had found no damage. But in most other respects, the Ever Given has succumbed to Murphy’s Law: Everything that could go wrong did, starting with the ship’s size, among the world’s largest.
“It was the biggest ship in the convoy, and she ended up in the worst part of the canal” — a narrow section with only one lane, Captain Sloane said. “And that was just really unfortunate.”
If the ship breaks free by Monday, the shipping industry can absorb the inconvenience, analysts said, but beyond that, supply chains and consumers could start to see major disruptions.
The operators of the Ever Given have said that the vessel ran aground because of the high winds of a sandstorm. While shipping experts said that wind might have been a factor, they also suggested that human error may also have come into play.
Egyptian officials offered a similar assessment at a news conference on Saturday.
“A significant incident like this is usually the result of many reasons: The weather was one reason, but maybe there was a technical error, or a human error,” said Lt. Gen. Osama Rabie, chief of Egypt’s Suez Canal Authority.
The ship’s operators had said this week that its stacked containers had essentially acted like a giant sail amid the sandstorm.
But villagers in nearby Manshiyet Rugola noted that other ships in the same convoy had passed through the canal without incident. So had previous ships in previous storms, they pointed out.
“We’ve seen worse winds,” said Ahmad al-Sayed, 19, a security guard, “but nothing like that ever happened before.”
Shipping experts have asked the same question.
“I am highly questioning, why was it the only one that went aground?” Capt. Paul Foran, a marine consultant who has worked on other salvage operations. “But they can talk about all that later. Right now, they just have to get that beast out of the canal.”
General Rabie said that ship captains are asked to keep any material that might be required for an investigation. He noted that 12 northbound ships had passed through the canal ahead of the Ever Given that day, and another 30 ships had traveled through from the opposite direction.
Last year, General Rabie said, 18,840 ships had traversed the canal without an accident.
Cnes 2020, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Khaled Elfiqi/EPA, via Shutterstock
Suez Canal Authority, via Associated Press
EPA, via Shutterstock
Pictures of the ship, from satellite views to those on the ground, reveal the true scale of the issue.
With each day that the Ever Given container ship remains stuck in the Suez Canal, the cost of the disruption grows more consequential.
After days of failed efforts to move the mammoth ship, shipowners began rerouting ships bound for the Suez Canal around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, adding weeks to their journeys and burning additional fuel — a cost ultimately borne by consumers.
When deciding whether to divert, a shipping company must consider the cost of sitting for days outside the canal versus the added time of steaming around Africa. It is not an easy choice.
“It is like choosing the queue at the post office — it is never the right decision,” said Alex Booth, the head of research at Kpler, a company that tracks petroleum shipping.
Already, seven giant carriers of liquefied natural gas appear to have changed course away from the canal, according to Kpler.
Container ships are also changing their plans. HMM, a Korean shipping company, ordered one of its vessels that was headed to Asia from Britain via the canal to go around Africa instead, according to Noh Ji-hwan, a spokesman for the company.
As workers race to unclog the vital trading artery, industry leaders are trying to figure out how big the impact might be if the crisis stretches from days into weeks.
Two weeks could strand as much as a quarter of the supply of containers that would usually be in European ports, estimated Christian Roeloffs, the chief executive officer of xChange, a shipping consultant in Hamburg, Germany.
“Considering the current container shortage, it just increases the turnaround time for the ships,” Mr. Roeloffs said.
Three-fourths of all container ships traveling from Asia to Europe arrived late in February, according to Sea-Intelligence, a research company in Copenhagen. Even a few days of disruption in the Suez could exacerbate that.
If the Suez remains clogged for more than a few days, the stakes will rise drastically. Ships now stuck in the canal will find it difficult to turn around and pursue other routes, given the narrowness of the channel.
Whenever ships again move through the canal, they are likely to arrive at busy ports all at once, forcing many to wait before they can unload — an additional delay.
“This could make a really bad crisis even worse,” said Alan Murphy, the founder of Sea-Intelligence.
An armada of tugboats, their engines churning with the combined power of tens of thousands of horses, has been pushing and pulling at the Ever Given for days.
Cranes, looking like playthings in the shadow of the hulking cargo ship, have been scooping mountains of earth from the area around where the ship’s bow and stern are wedged tight.
But with the ship stretching about 1,300 feet long — roughly the height of the Empire State Building — and weighing around 200,000 metric tons, they still had not managed to dislodge the vessel.
Peter Berdowski, the chief executive of Royal Boskalis Westminster, one of the companies appointed by Ever Given’s owner to help move the vessel, told the Dutch current affairs program Nieuwsuur on Wednesday that the operation to free the ship could take “days, even weeks.”
Mr. Berdowski, whose company has been involved in expanding the Suez Canal, said that the Ever Given was stuck on both shallow sides of the V-shaped waterway. Fully loaded with 20,000 containers, the ship “is a very heavy beached whale,” he said.
The authorities first tried to float the vessel using tugboats, a tactic that worked to free the CSCL Indian Ocean, a similarly sized container ship that became stuck in the Elbe River in 2016, near the port of Hamburg, Germany.
Mr. Berdowski said that the Ever Given, operated by the company Evergreen, was too heavy for tugboats alone and that dredging equipment was therefore being used to move the earth from around the ship.
A video taken from the ship and provided by Mohammed Mosselhy, the owner of First Suez International, a maritime logistics company at the canal, showed several excavators digging steadily at the edge of the turquoise water near the ship’s bow on Friday.
As the dredgers worked, a team of eight Dutch salvage experts and naval architects overseeing the operation were surveying the ship and the seabed and creating a computer model to help it work around the vessel without damaging it, said Capt. Nick Sloane, a South African salvage master who led the operation to right the Costa Concordia, the cruise ship that capsized in 2012 off the coast of Italy.
If the tugboats, dredgers and pumps cannot get the job done, they could be joined by a head-spinning array of specialized vessels and machines requiring perhaps hundreds of workers: small tankers to siphon off the ship’s fuel, the tallest cranes in the world to unload some of its containers one by one and, if no cranes are tall enough or near enough, heavy-duty helicopters that can pick up containers of up to 20 tons — though no one has said where the cargo would go. (A full 40-foot container can weigh up to 40 tons.)
All this because, to put it simply: “This is a very big ship. This is a very big problem,” said Richard Meade, the editor in chief of Lloyd’s List, a London-based maritime intelligence publication.
“I don’t think there’s any question they’ve got everything they need,” he said. “It’s just a question of, it’s a very big problem.”
The gargantuan container ship that has stymied world trade by getting stuck in the Suez Canal has towered over Umm Gaafar’s dusty brick house for four days now, humming its deep mechanical churr.
She looked up from where she sat in the bumpy dirt lane and considered what the vessel, the Ever Given, might be carrying in all those containers. Flat-screen televisions? Full-sized refrigerators, washing machines or ceiling fans?
None of which she or her neighbors in the tiny Egyptian hamlet of Manshiyet Rugola, population 5,000-ish, has at home.
“Why don’t they pull out one of those containers?” she joked. “There could be something good in there. Maybe it could feed the town.”
The Japanese-owned Ever Given and the more than 300 cargo ships now waiting to traverse the Suez Canal, one of the world’s most critical shipping arteries, could supply Manshiyet Rugola many, many times over.
In the village, whose name translates to “Little Village of Manhood,” traffic jams of any kind would be difficult to imagine ordinarily.
Donkey carts piled high with clover bumped down semi-paved lanes between low brick houses and green fields lined with palm trees, trash and animal dung. A teenager hawked ice cream from his motorcycle. Roosters offered profane competition to the noontime call to prayer.
Until the Ever Given showed up, the minarets of the unimposing mosques were the tallest structures around.
“Do you want to see the ship?” a young boy asked a pair of visiting journalists, bobbing in excitement under the window of their car. Ever since the earthquake-like rumble of the ship running aground jolted many awake around 7 a.m. on Tuesday, the Ever Given was the only topic in town.
“The whole village was out there watching,” said Youssef Ghareeb, 19, a factory worker. “We’ve gotten so used to having her around, because we’ve been living on our rooftops just watching the ship for four days.”
It was universally agreed that the view was even better at night, when the ship glowed with light: a skyscraper right out of a big-city skyline, lying on its side.
“When it lights up at night, it’s like the Titanic,” said Nadia, who, like her neighbor Umm Gaafar, declined to give her full name because of the security forces in the area. “All it’s missing is the necklace from the movie.”
Umm Gaafar had asked to go by her nickname so as not to run afoul of the government security personnel who had passed through, warning residents not to take photos of the canal and generally spreading unease.
Nadia said she was too intimidated to take pictures of the ship at night — though she very much wanted to.
Initially it was the sheer oddity of a ship being stuck in the Suez Canal, single-handedly snarling global trade in a world already mired in a pandemic, that grabbed the online world’s attention. But it was the photo of a tiny digger working away at its mammoth task that sealed the Ever Given’s fate as the foundation for thousands of relatable memes.
Was the digger — which was trying its hardest to dislodge the vessel despite a titanic size difference — the perfect metaphor for thinking we can make any dent in our to-do lists, finally manage to stop procrastinating or get our thousands of unread emails down to zero?
Was it the visual representation of the scant relief that a walk outdoors can offer from the doom and gloom of a pandemic-gripped world?
Or was it simply us trying to do our best despite the odds?
Perhaps we were just looking for solutions.
Soon, the 1,300-foot Ever Given was so splashed across social media feeds that its many colorful containers and the large white lettering spelling out the name of the company that operates the ship spawned a viral tweet showing people how to “steal his look.”
One woman got even more creative, adapting the melody of one of TikTok’s most famous sea shanties to tell the ship’s woeful tale.
there once was a ship that put to sea
and the name of the ship was the evergreen
her screws spun up
her bow spun round
oh turn my evergreen turn
soon may excavation men come
to dig us out of the suez’s run
one day when the diggin is done
we’ll take our leave and gooooooo! pic.twitter.com/6PWBC796Vy
— Kat “Professional Suez Shanty Writer” Callahan 🍱 (@JezebelKat) March 25, 2021
Then, following the playbook of similarly popular memes that have gone before it — like the fly on Mike Pence’s head — Twitter accounts popped up posing as the Ever Given and the “Guy With The Digger At Suez Canal,” drawing thousands of followers with their humorous takes.
And it wouldn’t be a fully fledged internet moment without a website built specifically to answer a simple question, which in this case was: Is that ship still stuck?
As of Saturday, the answer was still “Yes.”