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Scores of container ships waiting to transit Suez Canal

Ever Given ran aground Tuesday en route from Malaysia to the Netherlands

The 20,000-TEU Ever Given was bound for the Port of Rotterdam when it ran aground in the Suez Canal. (Photo: Flickr/kees torn CC BU-SA 2.0)

Speculation is swirling that wind blew one of the world’s largest container ships off course and caused it to be lodged between the banks of the Suez Canal.

Social media also was flooded Wednesday with varying reports on the status of the Ever Given, which ran aground Tuesday morning

What is certain is that dozens of ships are waiting to transit the roughly 119-mile-long canal. Fifty ships on average use the canal between the Red and Mediterranean seas each day. Traffic in both directions has been at a standstill since about 6 a.m. in Egypt on Tuesday. 

Leth Agencies, a ship and offshore agency in Egypt, said in an update on its website Wednesday that 30 vessels were at anchor in Great Bitter Lake, about midway in the canal; 42 at Port Said on the north end; and 30 at the south end. 

“The current expectation is that it will take some two days to clear the canal, which will cause the delay of 110,000 TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units) of cargo,” Sea Intelligence Consulting CEO Lars Jensen said in a LinkedIn post Wednesday. That in turn will “cause a spike of cargo into the main ports in Europe as this will now arrive at the same time as cargo arriving normally a few days later. In other words, this increases the risk we will see port congestion in European ports one week from now. 

“On top of that, it simultaneously delays the movement of 55,000 TEUs of containers back to Asia per day — further adding delays to getting empty containers available in Asia,” Jensen said. 

Data provided to American Shipper on Wednesday by project44 listed 36 vessels affected by the canal blockage. The major shipping lines — CMA CGM, COSCO, Maersk, MSC, NYK, ONE and Yang Ming — all were on the list. Rough math shows if all fully laden, those 36 ships, from the 900-TEU BF Esperanza to the 20,200-TEU Ever Globe, would be carrying 127,500 TEUs — not far off Jensen’s estimate.

MarineTraffic imagery shows the backup in the Suez Canal Wednesday.

Various social media posts claimed the Ever Given had been partially refloated, but the ship’s manager, Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement (BSM), as of 9 p.m. Wednesday in Egypt had not reported the container vessel had been moved — or was able to sail. 

“BSM’s immediate priorities are to safely refloat the vessel and for marine traffic in the Suez Canal to safely resume. The continued efforts of the Suez Canal Authority and those involved in ongoing refloating operations are greatly appreciated and BSM will continue to work closely with all parties involved in this operation,” it said. “Once refloated, the vessel will undergo a full inspection and BSM will cooperate fully with the relevant authorities on reports of the incident.”

Leth Agencies also reported that eight tugs continued to work on refloating the Ever Given and that two dredgers were underway to the site, about the 93-mile mark in the canal. It said the dredgers were “expected to commence their efforts” — i.e., dig out the container ship — Wednesday night. As of publication time, one of those dredgers had arrived on the scene.

BSM, which manages the ship for Evergreen Marine, did say an initial investigation had ruled out “any mechanical or engine failure as a cause of the grounding” and instead blamed “strong winds.” 

Nick Austin, FreightWaves’ senior meteorologist, said Cairo International Airport, about 87 miles from where the Ever Given ran aground, reported blowing sand and sustained winds as strong as 30 miles an hour Tuesday. 

The ultra large Ever Given has the capacity to carry 20,000 TEUs, making it one of the world’s biggest container ships. Built in 2018, the Ever Given is more than 1,310 feet long and over 193 feet wide. Stood on its stern, the Ever Given would stand taller than the Empire State Building. 

The Ever Given sails on Evergreen’s China-Europe-Mediterranean service. Its last port of call was Tanjung Pelepas in Malaysia before transiting the Suez Canal en route to the Port of Rotterdam, Netherlands, where it was scheduled to berth April 1. 

The Ever Given also calls Kaohsiung and Taipei, Taiwan; Qingdao, Shanghai, Ningbo and Yantian, China; Felixtowe, England; and Hamburg, Germany. 

According to FreightWaves maritime market expert Henry Byers, the Ever Given typically carries such goods as apparel, electrical equipment, tools and bicycles.

Byers said the Ever Given was operating on behalf of the Ocean Alliance, the space-sharing cooperative among Evergreen, CMA CGM, OOCL and  COSCO.

About 19,000 ships reportedly transited the canal last year. American Shipper reported that 983.4 million tons of cargo were transported on the Suez Canal in 2018. 

Incidents of traffic backups on the Suez Canal are not common. In October 2017, the 21,000-TEU container ship OOCL Japan experienced mechanical problems and ran aground while transiting the canal. Tug boats were able to free the ship within hours, and the OOCL Japan was able to continue its transit.

In April 2016, the 12,500-TEU MSC Fabiola ran aground and blocked canal traffic for about nine hours before it was refloated. 

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Click for more American Shipper/FreightWaves stories by Senior Editor Kim Link-Wills.

Kim Link Wills

Senior Editor Kim Link-Wills has written about everything from agriculture as a reporter for Illinois Agri-News to zoology as editor of the Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine. Her work has garnered awards from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, the Georgia Institute of Technology and the Magazine Association of the Southeast. Prior to serving as managing editor of American Shipper, Kim spent more than four years with XPO Logistics.