See how the Suez Canal Closure Crisis is already becoming like the BP Gulf Oil Spill.

Hopes Fade for Quickly Freeing Ship From Suez Canal

Rescue teams have made progress, but authorities were wary of offering a timeline for unsticking the Ever Given

Authorities say they are cautiously optimistic about dislodging the Ever Given but the timing isn’t clear.

By Rory Jones and Amira El Fekki
The Wall Street Journal

SUEZ, Egypt—Egyptian authorities are still working to free the huge container ship blocking the Suez Canal but were wary of offering a firm timeline of when they might unstick the Ever Given, dashing hopes that it might be quickly moved to open up the pivotal trade route.

People involved in the operation had earlier signaled that the 1,300-foot vessel, operated by Taiwan-based Evergreen Group, could be moved as early as Saturday. A rescue team was able to restart the ship’s rudder and propeller the previous day after it veered into the eastern side of the canal during stormy conditions earlier this week, blocking the busy waterway to traffic. Some 320 vessels are waiting to traverse the 120-mile channel.

Authorities said they are cautiously optimistic about dislodging the vessel, but Osama Rabie, head of the Suez Canal Authority that manages the channel, said Saturday afternoon that he couldn’t provide a time frame for reopening the canal. Tugboats are continuing their attempts to pull the ship out from the thick sediment lining the side of the canal.

Mr. Rabie also said the rescue team was also now considering how to further lighten the vessel’s load, including the use of other ships and mobile cranes to unload containers, though he said the team hoped it wouldn’t have to pursue such measures.

“We cannot set a determined time to finish,” said Mr. Rabie. “We are equipped to deal with this sort of crisis.”

Osama Rabie, head of the Suez Canal Authority, said Saturday that the rescue team was considering how to further lighten the ship’s load.

Egyptian authorities allowed journalists access to the Ever Given via a boat from Suez late Saturday night. At 10 pm local time, the stricken vessel was lit up with bright lights dotted along its starboard side, as a 200-foot tugboat, called the Capo Gee, pulled at its stern trying to pull the larger ship free. Two other boats steadied the starboard side of the ship and at least three diggers lined the eastern shore near the ship’s bow.

The canal authority said high winds accompanying a sandstorm were a factor in driving the bow of the Ever Given into the east bank of the canal Tuesday, but investigators can’t yet rule out human error or a technical malfunction. According to slides at a press conference Saturday, Egyptian authorities are also examining so-called “bank effects”—a dynamic in which large ships in shallow, narrow waters can be pushed and pulled by high and low pressure areas in the water.

Investigations are continuing, though industry executives say they expect the canal authority and the ship’s operators to give their own accounts of events. The salvagers are bound by contract not to make their findings public, and Egypt is unlikely to accept an independent probe.

Freeing the Ever Given would relieve some of the strain on the global shipping industry and transit of oil, gas and consumer goods between Asia and Europe. Some 13% of global maritime trade and 10% of seaborne oil shipments transit the canal. It will also ease pressure on Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, who in 2015 inaugurated an expanded canal that was meant to earn more government revenue and help turn the page on the upheavals of the Arab Spring and the army takeover that brought him to power. A boom in revenues hasn’t materialized.


Shipping companies with vessels idling in or near the Suez Canal are considering taking a detour around Africa. The Cape of Good Hope route is considerably longer and burns more fuel, making it less popular than the Suez Canal option.

Those involved in the rescue effort said early Friday that the process could take two to three more days as dredgers worked to remove hundreds of thousands of cubic feet of sand around the ship’s bow. But the operation made significant progress late Friday after the salvagers turned on its engines before low tides forced them to suspend the effort.

While European and Asian companies bore the brunt of the impact of the shutdown, the closure also threatened knock-on delays and costs to U.S. importers and exporters. The White House has offered unspecified assistance to clear the waterway. Greece, the United Arab Emirates and China have also offered support, but the canal authority said it hadn’t accepted any help, though it may seek assistance if it has to remove a large number of containers from the Ever Given.

To help remove the backlog of vessels in the Red Sea and Mediterranean, the Suez Canal Authority is expected to try to increase the number of ships moving through the waterway once the Ever Given is freed.

In normal circumstances a maximum of 106 ships can cross the waterway daily, according to the World Shipping Council, a shipping trade body.

Many shipowners had already decided to reroute from the canal south toward Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, adding weeks to the journey and fuel costs. At the start of the rescue effort, salvagers had worried the effort could take weeks as the ship would need to be lightened by taking off fuel and ballast water and possibly by removing its roughly 18,000 containers with helicopters.

Early Friday, the Ever Greet—a sister ship to the Ever Given—was steered toward that route, according to MarineTraffic, a shipping tracker. The vessel was sailing from China to Rotterdam in the Netherlands. Shipping giant A.P. Moeller-Maersk A/S said 22 of its ships have been affected by the blocked canal, including two that rerouted to the Cape of Good Hope.

Corrections & Amplifications
The Ever Given collided with the east bank of the Suez Canal on Tuesday. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said the collision happened Wednesday.


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