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Suez salvage operators consider removing cargo to lighten distressed vessel

More vessels stack up in Red Sea, Mediterranean as reopening effort drags on

(Photo: Suez Canal Authority)

Efforts continued Sunday to dislodge a massive container ship that ran aground in the Suez Canal during a windstorm six days ago and is blocking hundreds of cargo vessels, but there is no immediate end in sight to the shipping crisis as the ripple effects pile up.

Two more large tug boats joined the operation to refloat the 20,000-TEU Ever Given, and there are reports that the vessel was moved about 95 feet so far with the help of dredging vessels and onshore diggers.  The next refloating effort is scheduled to begin about 4 P.M. ET.

Osama Rabie, the head of the Suez Canal Authority, told an Egyptian television station that containers may have to be unloaded to lighten the massive vessel, which is operated by Taiwanese company Evergreen Marine, as reported by NBC News. He said officials have been in discussions with the U.S. about removing some of the cargo.

U.S. and Egyptian officials on Friday said the U.S. military will assist in reopening the Suez Canal, although what form the assistance could take remains unclear.

An estimated 12% of world trade flows through the canal. 

More than 300 container vessels, oil tankers and bulk cargo vessels are blocked in both directions from using the critical trade shortcut between Europe and Asia. The blockage is exacerbating ongoing delays with ocean shipping associated with record trade volumes, a lack of extra ships to meet the demand, shortages of containers for loading imports and exports, port congestion, and coronavirus restrictions. 

Lloyd’s List estimates that $9.5 billion worth of trade per day normally moves through the passageway. That figure does not include oil, gas and other energy products carried on bulk vessels.

More vessels continue to arrive each day at the Red Sea and Mediterranean entrances to the canal, increasing the length of the queue for passage.

Vessel operators are implementing contingency plans to prevent in-transit cargo from stacking up further, but options are limited.

Maersk (DXE: MAERB) the world’s largest container line operator, said in a customer update on Sunday that it had redirected 15 vessels around the southern tip of Africa based on estimates that the Ever Given salvage operation and subsequent clearance of backlogged vessels will take at least as long as the extra voyage time.

Maritime experts say it takes about seven to about 10 days of extra sailing time for vessels to travel around the Cape of Good Hope from Asia, depending on the destination in Europe. Based on how many vessels transit the Suez Canal on a daily basis, it could take close to two weeks to clear the existing backlog with the impact cascading up the line of vessels scheduled to arrive in the next month.

“New calculations on redirecting additional vessels will be made Monday considering the weekend’s salvage attempts,” the Maersk notice said.

Maersk has three vessels stuck in the canal and 27 waiting at anchor to enter, with two more expected to reach the queue Sunday and six more vessels en route.

CMA CGM, the fourth-largest box line, says it has a dozen vessels impacted by the delays, plus cargo on nine vessels operated by alliance partners, waiting outside Port Said in the Mediterranean or in the Red Sea. It said Saturday that it has diverted two box ships around the Cape of Good Hope to minimize impact on customers.

German shipping line Hapag Lloyd (DXE: HLAG) said it has nine vessels locked in the canal or at outside anchorage and six more being redirected around the Cape of Good Hope.

Mediterranean Shipping Co., the world’s second-largest container line, previously said it is rerouting 11 vessels around southern Africa and turning back two ships to discharge cargo at other ports and await further orders.

Click here for more American Shipper/FreightWaves stories by Eric Kulisch.


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Eric Kulisch

Eric is the Supply Chain and Air Cargo Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government coverage and news analysis, and was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. Eric is based in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached for comments and tips at [email protected]