The skyscraper-sized container ship that has been stuck in the Suez Canal for almost a week was finally freed on Monday, with the vessel starting to move north following a dramatic rescue mission to reopen one of the world’s main trade arteries.
Tugboats involved in the rescue sounded their horns as the bow of the Ever Given was released from the eastern canal bank shortly after 2pm London time. Leth Agencies, a transit agent in the Suez Canal, said the vessel was moving north to the Great Bitter Lake portion of the canal.
By Monday evening, large ships including cargo containers and livestock transporters could be seen on satellite-tracking moving south through the lower section of the canal, while vessels were also beginning to enter from the Mediterranean side.
Boskalis, the Dutch company fronting the rescue of the ship through salvage subsidiary Smit, had earlier warned there was only a 70 per cent chance of freeing the vessel this week after the stern of the ship was moved overnight, cautioning that it was still badly stuck.
But efforts to free the bow from heavy clay soil on Monday afternoon using heavy-duty tugboats and dredging operations were successful, potentially allowing the speedy reopening of the waterway to international shipping traffic.
Osama Rabie, head of the Suez Canal Authority, on Monday said navigation had started in the canal from 6pm local time and that by 8am on Tuesday 113 vessels should have sailed through the channel. If they continued at this rate, he said, the backlog of 422 ships waiting at both ends of the waterway could all pass through within three to three and half days.
“We are working 24 hours a day. Our pilots will work night and day,” said Rabie.
He also said the authority was looking into giving “incentives” to compensate the ships delayed by the blockage. “We will probably do it, because these are our clients and they have been negatively impacted.”
The blockage, which has captivated the world and become a rich source of online humour, created a build-up of almost 400 vessels at the north and south entrances to the canal, which carries about 12 per cent of global trade. Lloyd’s List estimates about $10bn worth of trade passes through the route each day.
News of the breakthrough sent oil prices lower, with Brent crude, the international oil benchmark, falling almost 1 per cent to $63.99 a barrel.
Peter Berdowski, chief executive of Boskalis, said “the time pressure to complete this operation was evident and unprecedented”.
Egypt’s president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi at the weekend ordered preparations for removing the containers from the ship if refloating efforts failed, raising fears the waterway could be cut off for weeks given the complicated and arduous nature of removing the goods far from port.
Shoei Kisen Kaisha, the Japanese company that owns the ship, had earlier said refloating was “near” after salvage experts managed to move the stern of the ship away from the western bank of the canal. Rescue efforts on Monday were focused on taking advantage of high spring tides to pull the vessel out with tugboats.
The disruption has hit at a time when global supply chains are already under strain, and the distortions caused by Covid-19 have placed particular pressure on the availability of containers. Soren Skou, chief executive of AP Moller-Maersk, the world’s largest container shipping line, told the Financial Times the blockage would accelerate a shift away from just-in-time supply chains.
The prospect of a prolonged blockage of the canal caused a number of shipping companies to reroute vessels around Africa, which adds substantial time and cost to voyages. Taiwanese group Evergreen Marine, which leases the Ever Given, is among those to have diverted ships.
Rabie said on local TV over the weekend that the Suez Canal Authority planned to work to allow 150 ships a day to pass through, far more than the 90 vessels it can handle on a normal day.
However, one person working at a global shipping group cautioned that the volume of traffic was likely to be lower, maybe just 80-85 vessels a day, requiring the best part of a week to clear.
Hapag-Lloyd, the world’s fifth-largest container shipping company, expects the backlog to be cleared within four days while Brian Gallagher, head of investor relations at Euronav, a Belgian tanker group, warned it would take “at least a week”.
Hapag-Lloyd does not intend to divert any more of its container ships around the Cape of Good Hope but AP Moller-Maersk is considering whether to send some of the 15 vessels it diverted around Africa back to the Suez Canal.
Authorities are likely to need to inspect the area where the Ever Given has been stranded to make sure it is safe for the largest ships to pass through after days of dredging activity.
Evergreen Marine said they would need to test the vessel’s seaworthiness at the Great Bitter Lake anchorage. Depending on the results, necessary adjustments will be made to the ship’s subsequent voyage and cargo delivery.
Additional reporting by Kathrin Hille in Taipei and Hudson Lockett in Hong Kong