Eight large tugboats were continuing a struggle to free a giant container ship lodged crossways in the Suez Canal after the vessel ran aground earlier this week, bringing transit through one of the world's busiest waterways to a halt.
The Suez Canal Authority said in a statement Thursday that it had officially suspended traffic while efforts to dislodge the 1,300-foot Ever Given continued. The salvage operator working to free the ship said it could be weeks before it is re-floated — raising the possibility of major new disruptions to global commerce just as supply chains have begun to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Ever Given — one of the largest container vessels in operation and nearly twice as long as the canal is wide — ran aground on Tuesday amid high winds, a dust storm and poor visibility for navigation. It was heading north en route from China to the Netherlands through the canal that links the Mediterranean to the Red Sea.
The tugs have been concentrating efforts around twice-daily high tides in the canal, when they have the best chance of nudging the vessel into deeper water, shipping experts said.
But Peter Berdowski, CEO of Dutch company Boskalis, which is trying to free the ship, compared it to "an enormous beached whale" and said "it might take weeks" to get the vessel off, possibly necessitating "a combination of reducing the weight by removing containers, oil and water from the ship, tugboats and dredging of sand."
Speaking to the Dutch television program Nieuwsuur on Wednesday, Berdowski said that while the canal is 25 meters (82 feet) deep in the middle, it quickly gets shallow on either side. "It goes to 15 meters, to 11 meters, and then even less to the ends. The ship is 15.7 meters deep," he said.
Heavy equipment along the banks was being used to clear sand and mud from around the Ever Given's hull. Tugboats — the largest capable of towing 160 tons — trying to winch the vessel free, said Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement (BSM), the technical manager of the Panamanian-flagged Ever Given, which is operated by Taiwan-based Evergreen Line.
Despite those efforts, the website MarineTraffic.com shows the Ever Given's position has hardly changed since Tuesday's grounding.
In a statement, BSM said two canal pilots were aboard the vessel when it ran aground. The ship's crew of 25 are safe and that "there have been no reports of injuries, pollution or cargo damage and initial investigations rule out any mechanical or engine failure as a cause of the grounding." The firm said its "immediate priorities are to safely refloat the vessel and for marine traffic in the Suez Canal to resume."
Meanwhile, shipping traffic is quickly backing up at both ends of the canal, which normally sees about 50 cargo ships transit each day. Several dozen vessels, including other large container ships, oil and gas tankers and bulk carriers, creating what is being described as one of the worst maritime traffic jams in years.
Thirteen vessels that departed in a convoy on Wednesday from Port Said, at the Mediterranean entrance to the canal, dropped anchor in the Great Bitter Lake to wait out the operation to free the stricken vessel, according to Reuters.
The situation was only further complicating supply-chain problems caused by the pandemic, said Lars Jensen, CEO of Copenhagen-based SeaIntelligence Consulting, in an interview with NPR on Wednesday.
"You have major port congestion. You have shortages of vessel capacity, shortages of empty containers," he said.
Shipping experts said that if the canal can't be cleared in the next 24 to 48 hours, vessels plying routes between Europe and Asia may be forced to divert around Africa — adding up to 12 days to the journey.
"Things are looking grim," Capt. John Konrad, the founder and CEO of gCaptain, website that tracks the shipping industry, said in a video. "The longer it takes, the worse the situation is."
Konrad said it could be as bad as an incident in 2016 in which the CSCL Indian Ocean, another mega container ship as large as the Ever Given, ran aground in the River Elbe on approach to Hamburg, Germany. "That ship, it took 12 tugs six days to free it," he said.
Ever Given's Japanese owner, Shoei Kisen, acknowledged on Thursday that freeing the vessel was proving "extremely difficult" and apologized for the disruptions to shipping caused by the grounding.
In a translation of its statement, Shoei Kisen said it would "continue to work toward an early resolution of the situation.
"We sincerely apologize for causing a great deal of concern to the vessels scheduled to sail and their related parties while navigating the Suez Canal due to the accident of this vessel," it said.
NPR's International Affairs Correspondent Jackie Northam contributed to this report.