The mammoth cargo ship blocking the Suez Canal was wrenched from the shoreline and finally set free on Monday, raising hopes that one of the world’s most vital maritime routes would quickly rebound and limit the fallout of a disruption that had paralyzed billions of dollars in global trade.
Within hours, other ships awaiting transit through the 120-mile-long waterway that connects the Mediterranean and Red Seas, waylaid for nearly a week, fired up their engines and began moving again.
Salvage teams, working on land and water for six days and nights, were ultimately assisted by forces more powerful than any machine rushed to the scene: the moon and the tides.
The ship, the quarter-mile-long Ever Given, was ultimately set free at around 3 p.m., according to shipping officials. Horns blared in celebration as images emerged on social media of the ship once again on the move.
“We pulled it off!” Peter Berdowski, chief executive of Royal Boskalis Westminster, a Dutch maritime salvage company hired by the vessel’s owner, said in a statement.
President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt celebrated the moment on Twitter, writing that “Egyptians have succeeded today in ending the crisis of the stuck ship in the Suez Canal despite the great complexities surrounding this situation in every aspect.”
Early Monday, the stern of the Ever Given was clearly free from land, but it was some hours before it was certain that the ship’s bulbous bow had been successfully pulled from the mud and muck on the banks of the canal.
Salvage crews had worked around a schedule largely dictated by the tides: working to make progress during the six hours it would take for the water to go from low point to high.
A full moon on Sunday gave the salvager an especially promising 24-hour window to work in, with a few extra inches of tidal flow providing a vital assist.
Throughout the night on Sunday and into Monday, tugboats worked in coordination with dredgers to return the 220,000-ton vessel to the water.
Then, just before dawn, the ship slowly regained buoyancy.
It was a turning point in one of the largest and most intense salvage operations in modern history, with the smooth functioning of the global trading system hanging in the balance.
The army of machine operators, engineers, tugboat captains, and other salvage operators knew they were in a race against time. Each day of blockage put global supply chains 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 canal with ease, supplying much of the globe as they traverse the quickest path from Asia and the Middle East to Europe and the East Coast of the United States.
With concerns that the salvage operation could take weeks, some ships decided not to wait, turning to take the long way around the southern tip of Africa, a voyage that can add weeks to the journey and more than $26,000 a day in fuel costs.
Each bit of progress in moving the ship over the weekend was celebrated by the workers on the canal, with tugboat horns blaring and shouts of joy often echoing in the desert dark.
The company that oversees the ship’s operations and crew, Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement, said 11 tugboats had helped, with two joining the struggle on Sunday. Several dredgers, including a specialized suction dredger that can extract 2,000 cubic meters of material per hour, dug around the vessel’s bow, the company said.
Teams of divers inspected the hull throughout the operation and found no damage, officials said. The ship was to be inspected again after it was freed.
Assisted by a flotilla of tugboats, the ship was towed north to the Great Bitter Lake, the widest part of the canal, so it could be further inspected and so delayed traffic could once gain flow smoothly.
Leth Agencies, a shipping services provider that specializes in canal passages, said on Twitter that with the Ever Given now safely out of the way, 43 other vessels awaiting southbound transit at Great Bitter Lake had resumed their voyages toward the Red Sea end of the canal.
M/V EVER GIVEN has been safely escorted to Great Bitter Lake by the #Suez Canal Authority.
The 43 vessels at GBL have already resumed transit and are expected to exit at 2030 (GMT+2). 30 vessels will enter from Port Said Anch. for SB convoy. NB convoy to be confirmed later. pic.twitter.com/BVIB3zvwaQ
— Leth Agencies (@AgenciesLeth) March 29, 2021
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, 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 Taiwan-based 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.
Together, the armada of tugboats — their engines churning with the combined power of tens of thousands of horses — have been pushing and pulling at the Ever Given for days.
Then, before dawn on Monday, the ship broke free from the shore and was partially refloated — a moment both shipping and Egyptian officials hoped marked the beginning of the end of the saga.
Once fully afloat, the ship can be easily controlled by tugboats and safely pushed out of the way.
It was a turning point in a drama that had been building for days, where optimism seemed to rise and fall like the tides themselves.
With the ship too heavy for tugboats alone, the effort on the water was being aided by teams on land, where cranes that look like playthings in the shadow of the hulking cargo ship have been scooping mountains of earth from the area where the ship’s bow and stern are wedged tight.
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 were unable to get the job done, they would have been 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 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 maritime intelligence publication based in London.
Even with the refloating of the Ever Given meaning the Suez Canal can soon reopen for business, shipping analysts cautioned that it will take time — perhaps days — for the hundreds of ships now waiting for passage to continue their journeys.
Shipping analysts estimated the traffic jam was holding up nearly $10 billion in trade every day.
“All global retail trade moves in containers, or 90 percent of it,” said Alan Murphy, the founder of Sea-Intelligence, a maritime data and analysis firm. “Name any brand name, and they will be stuck on one of those vessels.”
The Syrian government said over the weekend that it would begin rationing the use of fuel after the closure of the Suez Canal delayed the delivery of a critical shipment of oil to the war-torn nation.
And in Lebanon, which in recent months has been suffering blackouts amid an economic and political crisis, local news outlets were reporting that the country’s shaky fuel supply risked further disruption if the blockage continued.
With the backlog of ships now stuck outside the canal growing to over 300 on Sunday, the threat to the oil supplies in Lebanon and Syria was an early indication of how quickly the disruption to the smooth functioning of global trade could ripple outward.
Virtually every container ship making the journey from factories in Asia to consumer markets in Europe passes through the channel. So do tankers laden with oil and natural gas.
The shutdown of the canal is affecting as much as 15 percent of the world’s container shipping capacity, according to Moody’s Investor Service, leading to delays at ports around the globe. Tankers carrying 9.8 million barrels of crude, about a tenth of a day’s global consumption, are now waiting to enter the canal, estimates Kpler, a firm that tracks petroleum shipping.
The Syrian Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources said the blockage of the canal had “hindered the oil supplies to Syria and delayed arrival of a tanker carrying oil and oil derivations to Syria.”
Rationing was needed, the ministry said in a statement, “in order to guarantee the continued supply of basic services to Syrians such as bakeries, hospitals, water stations, communication centers, and other vital institutions.”
The six days that the Suez Canal was closed to traffic might have seemed endless to the sailors stranded at either end of the passage, but tell that the crews of the so-called Yellow Fleet.
In the aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, 14 commercial vessels were marooned in the canal for eight years.
The war, which broke out in June of that year, lasted only six days. But the Egyptian authorities closed the canal and ordered the 14 vessels to anchor in the widest part, known as Great Bitter Lake.
With Egyptian forces on the western side of the canal and Israelis on the eastern side, the waterway essentially became a cease-fire line between two enemy armies.
Time passed, the yellow sands of the desert coated the hulls of the trapped ships, and eventually the Yellow Fleet was born.
Even had the vessels’ captains wanted to defy the Egyptian orders and exit the canal, it was not possible. Egypt’s armed forces mined parts of the waterway.
Eventually, the crew members — who came from Britain, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, France, Poland, Sweden, West Germany and the United States, among other places — were allowed to evacuate and go home. And Egypt allowed the shipowners, who worried that the vessels would languish and rust without regular upkeep, to deploy rotating maintenance crews aboard.
The crew members had a lot of spare hours on their hands and spent a considerable number of them drinking, some later recalled. One captain wrote that 1.5 million empty beer bottles might have been dumped into the water, musing about “what future archaeologists in a few thousand years’ time will think of this.”
Worried about the alcohol consumption, the captains organized what they called the Great Bitter Lake Association, which essentially became a mini-community of merchant sailors from all over the world. They visited one another, turned lifeboats into sailboats for regattas and hosted weekly events on one another’s ships.
The Polish vessel had a doctor and became the sick bay. The Swedish ship was the athletic center, because it had a gym. The association members even created their own insignia and postage stamp. Their story was chronicled in a book, “Stranded in the Six-Day War,” by Cath Senker, a British author and educator.
Despite the efforts to keep the ships seaworthy, the vessels deteriorated over time and had to be towed out of the canal when Egypt finally reopened it in 1975.
From the outset, when winds of more than 70 miles per hour whipped up the sands surrounding the Suez Canal into a blinding storm and the Ever Given ran aground, the forces of nature have played an outsize role in the drama that has disrupted the free flow of goods and oil around the planet.
Since the 1,300-foot cargo ship laden with nearly 20,000 containers found itself wedged in the single lane of the canal, salvage teams have had to calculate complicated questions regarding not just engineering and physics, but also meteorology and earth science.
And no natural phenomenon has been as critical as the tides.
“The rising and falling of the sea is a phenomenon upon which we can always depend,” according to the National Ocean Service, which is part of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Tides are the regular rise and fall of the sea surface caused by the gravitational pull of the moon and sun and their position relative to the earth.”
The tides are constant, but they can rise higher and fall lower depending on the location of the sun and moon.
When the sun and moon are in alignment — as was the case with the full moon on Sunday — their combined gravitational pull results in exceptionally high tides, known as Spring Tides.
That is the case at the moment in the Suez, with water levels rising some 18 inches above normal.
High tides occur 12 hours and 25 minutes apart, according to NOAA. It takes six hours and 12.5 minutes for the water at the shore to go from high to low, or from low to high.
This is the window for salvage crews to free the Ever Given. Each time the tide rises, the 220,000-ton vessel stood a better chance of becoming buoyant, and the scores of tugboats used the tidal forces to help them in their struggle to free the ship.
But every time the tide fell, new stresses were put on the hull of the ship and the dangers increased.
The tidal flows in the Suez were at their peak Sunday and Monday, meaning it was a critical moment to finally free the ship
And by early afternoon, they had succeeded, with the ship once again fully afloat.
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.
Oil prices fell Monday morning as word spread that the giant cargo ship blocking the Suez Canal had been set free, raising hopes that hundreds of vessels, many carrying oil and petroleum products, could soon proceed through the critical waterway.
Oil prices had swirled earlier in the day, as prospects of an end to the logjam brightened, and then dimmed. But following the announcement that the containership Ever Given had been freed, the price of Brent crude, the international benchmark, fell about 2.5 percent, to $63.90 a barrel.
Since the vessel got stuck early last week, tankers have been lining up at the entrances to the canal waiting to deliver their cargoes to Europe and Asia.
The Suez Canal is a crucial choke point for oil shipping, but so far the impact on the oil market of this major interruption of trade flows has been relatively muted. Though prices jumped after shipping on the canal was halted, oil prices still remain below their nearly two-year highs of about $70 a barrel reached earlier this month.
Traders are now expected to focus on broader threats to the oil market, including whether the imposition of new lockdowns in Europe may hold back the recovery of oil demand from the pandemic.
From a global perspective, oil supplies are considered adequate, and the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, Russia and other producers, the group known as OPEC Plus, are withholding an estimated eight million barrels a day, or about 9 percent of current consumption, from the market. Officials from OPEC Plus are expected to meet by video conference on Thursday to discuss whether to ease output cuts.
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 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?” said 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.
Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
Fox Photos, via Getty Images
Bettman Archive, via Getty Images
Gamma-Keystone, via Getty Images
After 10 years of hard labor — during which tens of thousands of Egyptian workers died — the barrage of the Suez plains reservoir was breached on Nov. 17, 1869.
For the first time, waters of the Mediterranean flowed into the Red Sea and the canal was opened for international navigation. For nearly a century, it was mostly controlled and operated by the French and British.
In 1956, President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt nationalized the waterway. But almost as soon as his government took control, it was forced to briefly close after an invasion by an expeditionary force of British, French and Israeli soldiers.
The canal was reopened in 1957 and, firmly under Egyptian control, it became a symbol of the end of the colonial era.
A second closing occurred after the June 1967 War with Israel and lasted until 1975, when Egypt and Israel signed the second disengagement accord.
President Anwar el‐Sadat called the reopening the “the happiest day in my life,” according to an account of the event in The New York Times.
He “stood in an admiral’s white uniform on the bridge of the destroyer Sixth of October as it cut a thin chain across the canal’s entry and sailed south from Port Said harbor at the head of a ceremonial convoy.”
Doves were released to celebrate the moment.
The saying goes that all good things must come to an end. But when it was announced that the ship that was stuck in the Suez Canal for days had been set partially afloat again — and could possibly be freed before the end of the day on Monday — social media users lamented the news.
“PUT IT BACK” became a trending topic on Twitter in the United States.
THERE WAS SOMETHING DEEPLY COMFORTING ABOUT THE BOAT BEING STUCK AND I WOULD APPRECIATE IT IF THEY COULD PUT IT BACK
— NOT A WOLF (@SICKOFWOLVES) March 29, 2021
In the six days that it blocked the canal, the gargantuan Ever Given had single-handedly snarled global trade, shaking up global shipping paths and costing billions of dollars.
But the light relief that the vessel’s situation had brought to the world? Priceless, in some people’s eyes.
Thousands of people identified with the canal and the vessel’s stubborn determination to stay lodged across the vital waterway.
emotionally, i am the suez canal
— Sara Yasin (@sarayasin) March 24, 2021
Others shared handy guides on how everyone could do their bit to help.
The photo of a tiny digger working away at the mammoth task of trying to unstick the stuck ship firmly established itself as one of the most shareable memes 2021 has produced so far.
And after closely monitoring the situation, many shared their tongue-in-cheek answers to getting the boat dislodged, if only the teams attempting the rescue would listen.
After the news of the partial refloating, internet users rushed to squeeze in the last of their jokes about the Ever Given as its status remained unclear.
While President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt declared his countrymen had “succeeded in ending the crisis,” shipping officials warned that the efforts to completely free the vessel were ongoing.
So is the ship still stuck? For the website built specifically for that question, the answer early Monday was: “Sort of?”
Monday afternoon, it was updated to say: “No! What a relief.”
Among the assorted exports waiting to pass the Suez Canal is one that may have a more urgent deadline: tens of thousands of livestock packed into vessels that are running out of rations.
Even with the resumed voyage of the Ever Given, the cargo ship that had accidentally beached in the canal and blocked the waterway for nearly a week before it was freed on Monday, the risk to the livestock aboard other vessels remains high.
As of Monday, about 20 vessels in the canal were carrying livestock, said MarineTraffic, a global ship tracking site. Those ships, mostly from Romania but also Spain and South America, could have up to 200,000 animals aboard, estimated Animals International, an animal welfare organization that has investigated conditions aboard such vessels.
“They are dying as we speak,” said Gabriel Paun, the European director for Animals International. Ships typically contain a few days of food and water for the journey, but with some having left more than two weeks ago, those rations would be depleting. “Any day of delay is adding unnecessary suffering and, subsequently, death.”
The livestock vessels had been bound for Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, according to MarineTraffic, and Egyptian officials have delivered emergency feed to some vessels to support them.
Romanian veterinary and food and safety authority officials said on Monday that 11 vessels were transporting 105,727 sheep and 1,613 cattle, and that if the vessels remained delayed, other options were under consideration, including unloading the animals in nearby ports or returning them to Romania.
“We have contacted the competent authorities in Egypt, as well as transporters and business operators, and measures have been undertaken in order to supplement the quantities of feed on the livestock vessels where is needed,” the Romanian veterinary and food and safety authority said in an emailed statement.
But conditions were likely to be deteriorating, said Mr. Paun, adding that hygiene on such vessels was poor, with animals packed together in their own excrement. The best way forward, he said, would be for officials to give vessels with livestock aboard priority. “Every hour matters. Every hour saves lives. We all know that they go to death, but it is about unnecessarily suffering.”
Spanish agricultural ministry officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But Spain has said that no ships bound for Saudi Arabia or Jordan would be loaded with livestock until the canal cleared, and Mr. Paun said that Romania had also temporarily suspended live exports.
It is not the first time the shipping of livestock along the route has drawn concern: In 2019, almost all of the 14,000 sheep aboard a vessel bound for Saudi Arabia died after it capsized outside the Port of Midia in Romania.
Praising the salvagers who freed the cargo vessel Ever Given six days after it grounded, the head of the Egyptian agency that runs the Suez Canal said Monday night that traffic had resumed in both directions of the crucial maritime passageway..
But Lt. Gen. Osama Rabie, chairman of the Suez Canal Authority, put the cost to Egypt of the disruption at between $12 million and $15 million a day, and said an investigation would determine who was responsible for paying it.
“The Suez Canal is not at fault,” General Rabie told reporters at a news conference in Ismailia, a city at the 120-mile-long canal’s halfway point. “We have been harmed by the incident.”
As of 6 p.m. local time — less than three hours after the Ever Given was refloated — traffic paralyzed by the ship had resumed moving, General Rabie said.
He said the ship had been moved north to the Great Bitter Lake, the widest part of the canal, where inspectors will examine it for possible damage. “Thank God, there were no deaths, injuries, or leaks,” General Rabie said. “All engines are working.”
More than 300 ships were prevented from transiting the canal after the Ever Green was beached last week, its quarter-mile length blocking the waterway.
“We will work day and night to clear the ships and end the congestion,” General Rabie said.