Suez Canal latest: Shipping firms consider going around Africa as rescue could take ‘weeks’

Global shipping firms are considering re-routing vessels around Africa if the giant container ship blocking the Suez Canal is not soon freed, raising fears of a domino-effect of delays and increased costs hitting industries around the  world. 

The Ever Given, a 224,000 ton, 400-metre long ultra large container vessel, was en route from China to Rotterdam when it became lodged diagonally across a single-lane stretch of the Suez Canal early on Tuesday morning.

It has blocked traffic in both directions, causing dozens of cargo vessels to back up at either end in one of the worst maritime traffic jams of recent times.

On Thursday the rescue team hired to refloat the ship said the operation could take “weeks” while logistics firms warned of delays to goods including garden furniture and barbecues.    

Copenhagen-based Maersk, which says it has seven ships stuck behind the Ever Given, said it was considering sending ships on a lengthy detour around the Cape of Good Hope – an option shippers have until now hoped to avoid because it would add at least a week and considerable fuel costs to the journey.   

Germany’s Hapag-Lloyd, which has five ships affected, also said it is “presently looking into possible vessel diversions around Cape of Good Hope.” 

Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement (BSM), the technical manager of Ever Given, said the latests attempt to free the fully-laden ship at high tide on Thursday morning failed despite dredgers trying to clear sand and mud from around the hull and eight Egyptian tug boats being brought in to tow.

It has employed Smit Salvage, the Dutch firm that refloated the capsized cruise ship Costa Concordia, to help free the ship and said the Dutch team would bring in a specialist suction dredger for a new attempt at high-tide in the afternoon.

Photographs from the scene showed an excavator trying to dig the ship’s bulbous prow out of the bank of the canal, where it appeared to have become embedded during impact.

On Wednesday Osama Rabie, the Chairman of the Suez Canal Authority (SAC), said “Once we get this boat out, then that’s it, things will go back to normal. God willing , we’ll be done today.”

But Peter Berdowski, the CEO of Boskalis, Smit’s parent company, said the ship was too heavy to simply pull free from its current position and the operation could “take weeks”.

“It is like an enormous beached whale. It’s an enormous weight on the sand. We might have to work with a combination of reducing the weight by removing containers, oil and water from the ship, tug boats and dredging of sand,” he told Dutch media.  

Unloading the vessel is a worst case scenario and Canal authorities said they would try to avoid it.

There is no port infrastructure on the stretch of the canal where the ship is stranded, meaning another vessel may have to be brought up to take on containers in a laborious operation that could take weeks or even months. 

Downing Street said the UK was willing to lend assistance to the salvage operation and warned that British businesses could face delays to deliveries.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “We are working with the authorities to assess the situation, we stand ready to provide any assistance that we can.

“We have not been approached by any UK companies or organisations with concerns about implications for their shipping plans. However, some goods destined for the UK may be delayed in transit.”

About 30 percent of the world’s shipping container volume and 12 percent of total global trade of all goods transits through the Suez Canal. 

By Thursday afternoon at least 150 vessels carrying cargoes including crude oil, cement and consumer goods from factories in the Far East were stuck in an enormous maritime traffic jam in the Red and Mediterranenan seas.

At least eight of the ships were carrying live animals, Bloomberg News reported.  Logistics firms warned that delays were likely to hit both businesses and consumers across all sectors.

“You have to think about the time of year, spring is starting. A lot of it is furniture, outdoor stuff, barbecues. It could be anything. Everyone is going to see massive delays on what they have ordered from China,” said Gavin White, the director of KG Logistics, a British freight forwarding firm that has cargo on ships stuck in the Red Sea.

 “I’ve had a customer on the phone today who is pulling his hair out. He has cargo that he needs to meet a deadline. All we can say is it is delayed and we don’t know how long for,” he said. 

“It is a domino effect. A lot of ships will be delayed for import, and exports will be stuck,” said H. Hares, the director of Rotterdam-based Go Global, who has a shipment of solar panels delayed in the traffic jam.

He said many European importers would be hoping to make up lost days by re-routing ships to ports in Italy or the South of France and transferring cargo to lorries.

But that plan will only work if the canal can be re-opened in a matter of days.  The SAC said it stopped any more ships from entering the canal until it is cleared.

The Japanese company that owns the ship on Thursday apologised for “causing a great deal of concern” to other vessels queuing to use the canal but cautioned that the “situation is extremely difficult,” suggesting salvage may take some time.

“We are trying to refloat in cooperation with the local authorities and the ship management company… but the situation is extremely difficult. We will continue to do our utmost to refloat and will continue to work toward an early resolution of the situation,” Shoei Kisen Kaisha said in a statement.

“We sincerely apologize for causing a great deal of concern to the vessels scheduled to sail and all related parties while navigating the Suez Canal.”

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