/High Tide in Suez Canal Raises Hopes of Freeing Cargo Ship

High Tide in Suez Canal Raises Hopes of Freeing Cargo Ship

SUEZ, Egypt—Salvage teams are girding for another attempt to free the Ever Given container ship that has been blocking the Suez Canal for five days, hoping that a higher-than-usual spring tide will help them unstick the 1,300-foot vessel from the east side of the channel, but their rescue efforts could be complicated by damage to the vessel’s bow.

The ship’s manager, Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement, said water had gotten into two forward tanks, but that the ship was stable. “The bow was partly wedged in a rock formation and it made the effort more difficult,” a member of the salvage team said.

People involved in the operation had earlier suggested the Ever Given, operated by Taiwan-based Evergreen Group, might have been freed as early as Saturday. A rescue team had managed to free the ship’s rudder and start its engines after it veered off course during stormy conditions on March 23, blocking the critical trade route to traffic and disrupting global supply chains. Some 320 vessels are waiting to traverse the 120-mile channel, according to the Suez Canal Authority, which runs the waterway.

Footage shows efforts to free a 1,300-foot container ship blocking the Suez Canal, which has caused a backlog of nearly 200 vessels. Shipping experts have warned that a resumption of traffic through the channel could be days, if not weeks, away. Photo: MaxarTechnologies

Dredging operations continued Sunday, and officials say they will try to free the ship with the help of the higher spring tide in the evening without having to unload containers to reduce its weight, which would be a difficult operation because of the location of the Ever Given.

“We hope we don’t reach a scenario of having to start taking containers off the ship, but we are preparing for it in case we have to,” said

Osama Rabie,

chairman of the canal authority, adding that these were the instructions of President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi.

The authority has already asked Dutch ship-salvage specialist Smit Salvage, which flew in Thursday to aid the rescue, to assess what kind of support vessels would be needed to help an unloading operation.

Big Ships

The ship that held up Suez Canal traffic, the Ever Given, is one of the world’s biggest ships.

Deadweight*: 220,123 tons

HMM Algeciras 2020 (world’s largest ship)

Deadweight*: 220,462 tons

18 tractor trailers (72 feet)


The largest ship through the Panama Canal

Tom Sharpe, a retired British Navy commander who has passed through the canal several times on a warship, said the salvage team will likely be keeping a close eye on tide levels to help free the Ever Given. During a full moon, as it will be on Sunday, tide levels rise higher on average and low tides are lower.

“They’ll be going hell for leather right now,” said Mr. Sharpe. “The significance of this high water is that it’s higher than at the time of the grounding so in theory it gives you your best shot.”

The Suez Canal Authority said high winds accompanying a sandstorm were a factor in driving the bow of the Ever Given into the east bank of the canal, but investigators can’t yet rule out human error or a technical malfunction.

Freeing the Ever Given would relieve some of the strain on the global shipping industry and transit of oil, gas and consumer goods between Asia and Europe.

Some 13% of global maritime trade and 10% of seaborne oil shipments transit the canal.

It will also ease pressure on Mr. Sisi, who in 2015 inaugurated an expanded canal that was meant to earn more government revenue and help turn the page on the upheavals of the Arab Spring and the army takeover that brought him to power. A boom in revenues hasn’t materialized, with some shippers taking advantage of lower fuel prices to take the long way from Asia to Europe, around the Cape of Good Hope on the southern tip of Africa. Longer-term, global warming is raising the prospect of a northern passage becoming viable through the Arctic Ocean.

While European and Asian companies bore the brunt of the impact of the shutdown, the closure also threatened knock-on delays and costs to U.S. importers and exporters. The White House has offered unspecified assistance to clear the waterway. Greece, the United Arab Emirates and China have also offered support, but the canal authority said it hadn’t accepted any help yet, though it may seek assistance if it has to remove a large number of containers from the Ever Given.

The entrance of the Suez Canal, which has been blocked by the Ever Given container ship.


mohamed abd el ghany/Reuters

If the salvage teams fail to quickly dislodge the ship, the spillover costs could quickly mount.

Sea-Intelligence, a Copenhagen-based data group, said rerouting ships that normally use the Suez Canal around Africa or through the Panama Canal over the long term would effectively cut the world’s container shipping capacity by about 6% because vessels would spend more time sailing on longer voyages.

“It is evident that such an amount of capacity absorption will have a global impact and lead to severe capacity shortages,” the group said in a report Friday. Sea-Intelligence said it would affect all trade lanes as container lines adjust their routes with ships at sea for longer periods.

The Signal Group, a tanker-management company with offices in London and Athens, estimated a two-week shutdown of the canal would effectively reduce capacity for shipping crude and petroleum products by 4.4% while a four-week closure would take out 12.6% of tanker capacity by requiring longer voyages around the blocked region, likely driving up freight rates for the oil sector.

The Suez Canal and the Ever Given

Write to Costas Paris at costas.paris@wsj.com and Rory Jones at rory.jones@wsj.com

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