The push to free the container ship stuck in the Suez Canal intensified Sunday as a growing fleet of tugboats and dredgers works to dislodge the 1,300-foot vessel. Egyptian officials said they were preparing to potentially unload some of its cargo if other attempts are unsuccessful.
While efforts to free the Ever Given have made incremental progress since Friday evening, two separate attempts to refloat it over the weekend failed, according to shipping authorities. Canal service provider Leth Agencies said another attempt was planned for Sunday afternoon local time, aided by two additional tugboats registered in Italy and the Netherlands.
Dredging efforts have removed more than 20,000 tons of sand and mud, which has loosened the ship’s bow, and the ship’s stern “has been cleared from the sand bank,” Evergreen Marine, the Taiwanese-based company that operates the ship, said Sunday.
The ship’s rudder and propeller are “fully functional and expected to provide additional support to tugboats assigned to move the container ship from the accident site so that normal transit may again resume within the canal,” Evergreen added.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi ordered preparations to be made for the possible removal of some of the ship’s 18,300 containers as a backup plan, Suez Canal Authority Chairman Osama Rabie told local media. That’s according to Reuters, which said any such operation to lighten the ship’s load would not start before Monday.
Rabie said the president had authorized obtaining the equipment needed to unload the containers while dredging operations continue, The Washington Post reported.
In the meantime, the number of ships waiting to pass through the blockage has grown to 327, according to Leth Agencies.
For days, tugboats have been struggling to free the Ever Given by towing and pushing the vessel since it ran aground Tuesday, closing off the main ocean route between Europe and Asia.
The Suez Canal Authority said in a statement Thursday that it had officially halted traffic while the refloating efforts continue, further stressing global supply chains already disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.
While traffic remains shut down, operators of vessels in the canal are weighing whether to continue to wait for the ship to be freed or to take a chance on costly alternate routes, like going around Africa.
Some experts estimate that the traffic jam — which is holding up cargo like food, oil and consumer goods — is costing close to $10 billion per day.
It’s also prompting war-torn Syria to ration fuel. The blockage has “hindered the oil supplies to Syria and delayed arrival of a tanker carrying oil and oil derivations,” the country’s Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources said Saturday in a statement to the state-run SANA news agency.
Officials said they were rationing distribution to ensure the supply of basic services to institutions like hospitals, water stations and communication centers.
Consumers may start to feel the effects of the blockage “pretty soon,” as some of the stranded vessels are reportedly carrying goods for e-commerce retailers like Amazon, which may start to run low on certain items, Christopher Rogers, a supply analyst with S&P Global Market Intelligence, told NPR’s Weekend Edition.
There may also be a “knock-on effect,” he explained, as many companies are getting their supply chains set up for summer production of goods that consumers will buy in the next holiday season. Rogers said that once the ship is freed, there will be lots of longer-term questions for the industry to grapple with about how and under what conditions the canal can be used.
“There will be a lot of lessons to be learned here, both by the Suez Canal Authority, by the shipping firms and by the supply-chain decision-makers who rely on them to get the goods around the world where they need them when they need them,” he said.
The high-stakes effort to refloat the Ever Given hinges on using tugboats to free the ship while dredging operations remove sand and mud from around the vessel’s bow. A specialized suction dredger, which can shift 2,000 cubic meters of material per hour, arrived Thursday to support the operations.
Salvage teams made “significant progress” Friday night when they removed the ship’s stern from sediment, freeing its rudder, according to Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement, the technical manager of the Ever Given.
Eleven tugs joined the refloating mission on Saturday, working alongside the dredging operations until just before midnight.
Those efforts managed to move the ship about 29 meters, or nearly 100 feet, Inchcape Shipping Services said in a tweet. Eyewitness video posted to social media shows tugboats honking their horns in celebration.
Dredgers have so far been able to shift 27,000 cubic meters of sand — to a depth of 18 meters, or nearly 60 feet — reports Reuters, citing the Suez Canal Authority.
“There are positive indicators from yesterday and the day before yesterday,” Rabie told Egyptian state TV, according to Reuters. “The rudder was not moving, and it is now moving. The propeller is working now. There was no water underneath the bow, and now there is water under it. And yesterday there was a 4-meter deviation in the bow and the stern.”
Meanwhile, the 25 crew members on board, all of them Indian nationals, were safe and accounted for Saturday and remained in “good health and spirits,” according to Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement.
“They are working closely with all parties involved to re-float the vessel,” Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement said in a statement. “The hard work and tireless professionalism of the Master and crew is greatly appreciated.”
The United States has offered assistance to Egyptian authorities to help reopen the canal, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a briefing Friday.
“We are consulting with our Egyptian partners about how we can best support their efforts,” she said.
The U.S. Navy has also offered assistance, according to CNN.
The Suez Canal Authority expressed gratitude for offers of international aid in a statement Friday.
“The Suez Canal Authority … values the offer of the United States of America to contribute to these efforts, and looks forward to cooperating with the U.S. in this regard in appreciation of this good initiative which confirms the friendly relations and cooperation between the two countries,” the statement said.