Egypt’s Suez Canal, providing the shortest sea link between Asia and Europe, has been blocked by a large container ship that ran aground after losing control, causing a traffic jam of cargo vessels in the region.
Tug boats were deployed to help shift the 400m-long (1312ft) and 59m-wide ship – the Ever Given – but there are fears it could remain trapped for days.
The ship’s owner said it had been blown off course by “a suspect gust of wind” just north of the port of Suez.
Egypt says it has reopened the canal’s older channel to divert traffic.
The waterway connects the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, providing the shortest sea link between Asia and Europe.
” The Ever Given”, registered in Panama, was bound for the port city of Rotterdam in the Netherlands from China and was passing northwards through the canal on its way to the Mediterranean.
The 200,000 tonne ship, built in 2018 and operated by Taiwanese transport company Evergreen Marine, ran aground and became lodged sideways across the waterway at about 07:40 local time on March, 23 Tuesday.
At 400m long – the length of four football pitches – the ship has blocked the path of dozens of other vessels which are now trapped in lines in both directions.
Evergreen Marine said the ship was “suspected of being hit by a sudden strong wind, causing the hull to deviate… and accidentally hit the bottom and run aground”.
The Suez Canal Authority (SCA) said it was working to refloat the giant ship, using rescue and tug units, according to AFP news agency. Its chairman, Admiral Osama Rabie, also said they had reopened older section of the canal to ease the bottleneck of marine traffic caused by the incident.
Dr Sal Mercogliano, a maritime historian based in the US state of North Carolina, told the BBC that incidents such as this were rare, but could have “huge ramifications for global trade“.
“This is the largest vessel ever to go aground in the Suez Canal,” he said, adding that the ship got lodged in the embankment and would have lost power and its ability to steer.
“If they are unable to pull her free… in a high tide, they are going to have to start removing cargo.”
The operation to move the “Ever Given”, which could include removing large amounts of sand from around the areas where the vessel is grounded, may take days, Cairo24 news reported, citing an official at the Suez Canal Authority.
In 2017, a Japanese container vessel blocked the canal after it ran aground following reported mechanical issues. The Egyptian authorities deployed tug boats and the ship was refloated within hours.
In 2015, Egypt’s government opened a major expansion of the canal that deepened the main waterway and provided ships with a 35km (22 mile) channel parallel to it.
Unblocked on 29 march 2021, according to the SCA, navigation in the waterway was “unaffected” and 84 ships had crossed as of roughly 2p.m. local time.
First towed by tug boats after experiencing engine problems but was soon operational.
This incident blocked hundreds of ships. Egypt said it may seek around $1 billion in compensation due to lost transit fees and damage to the canal from the salvage efforts.
The disruption serves as another reminder : the waterway is vulnerable to ships getting stuck or with engine problems.
About 12% of world trades passes through the Suez Canal, which avoid thousands of miles off voyages between Asia and Europe.
The SCA said in a statement it’s aiming to upgrade its rescue capabilities by adding some large tug boats. It’s also planning to build new so-called marine garages.