Ship ‘partially refloated,’ but still stuck in Suez Canal

SUEZ, Egypt — Engineers on Monday “partially refloated” the colossal container ship that continues to block traffic through the Suez Canal, a canal services firm said, without providing further details about when the vessel would be fully set free.

Satellite data from MarineTraffic.com showed that the ship’s bulbous bow, once firmly lodged in the canal’s eastern bank, had been wrested partially from the shore — although it remained stuck at the canal’s edge. The ship’s stern had swung around and was now in the the middle of the waterway, the tracking data showed. Although the movement represented the most significant progress yet, the salvage crew urged caution as obstacles loomed.

Nearly a week ago, the skyscraper-sized Ever Given got stuck sideways in the crucial waterway, creating a massive traffic jam. The obstruction has held up $9 billion each day in global trade and strained supply chains already burdened by the coronavirus pandemic. At least 367 vessels, carrying everything from crude oil to cattle, were still waiting to pass through the canal, while dozens were taking the alternate route around the Cape of Good Hope at Africa’s southern tip, adding some two weeks to journeys and threatening delivery delays.

The partial freeing of the vessel came after intensive efforts to push and pull the vessel with 10 tugboats when the full moon brought spring tide, Leth Agencies said, raising the canal’s water level and hopes for a breakthrough. Videos shared widely on social media appeared to show tugboats in the canal sounding their horns in celebration of the Ever Given being partly wrenched from the shore.

However, the rescue team said the ship’s bow remained stuck in the sandy clay at the canal’s edge.

“Don’t cheer too soon,” Peter Berdowski, CEO of Boskalis, the salvage firm hired to extract the Ever Given, told Dutch NPO Radio 1. “The good news is that the stern is free but we saw that as the simplest part of the job.”

The toughest challenge remained at the front of the ship, he added, noting that workers would struggle to haul the fully laden 220,000-ton vessel over the clay of the canal bank.

On Monday morning, an Associated Press journalist could see that the ship’s position had changed — where previously only the ship’s stern was visible, the ship’s side could now be seen.

Lt. Gen. Osama Rabei, the head of the Suez Canal Authority, confirmed that the vessel had been partially refloated after responding successfully to “pull-and-push maneuvers.” He said that workers had straightened the vessel’s position by 80% and that the stern had moved 102 meters (334 feet) from the canal bank.

The price of international benchmark Brent crude dropped some 2% on the news to just over $63.

When high tide returns at 11:30 a.m. local time on Monday, salvage crews will resume their attempts to pull the ship into the middle of the waterway and toward the Great Bitter Lake, a wide stretch of water halfway between the north and south end of the canal, where it will undergo technical examination, he said.

Overnight, several dredgers had toiled to vacuum up 27,000 cubic meters of sand and mud around the ship. Another powerful tugboat, Carlo Magno, arrived at the scene to join the work Monday, and the tugs would focus their efforts on the front of the ship, said Berdowski.

Although the vessel is vulnerable to damage in its current position, Shoei Kisen Kaisha Ltd., the company that owns the Ever Given, dismissed concerns on Monday, saying that the ship’s engine was functional and it could pursue its trip normally when freed. It wasn’t clear whether the Panama-flagged, Japanese-owned ship, hauling goods from Asia to Europe, would head to its original destination of Rotterdam or if it will need to enter another port for repairs.

The ship owners and operators did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the partial refloating of the vessel Monday.

Ship operators did not offer a timeline for the reopening of the crucial canal, which carries over 10% of global trade, including 7% of the world’s oil. Over 19,000 ships passed through last year, according to canal authorities. Millions of barrels of oil and liquified natural gas flow through the artery from the Persian Gulf to Europe and North America. Goods made in China — furniture, clothes, supermarket basics — bound for Europe also must go through the canal, or else take a circuitous 5,000 kilometer (3,100 mile) detour around the southern tip of Africa.

The unprecedented shutdown has threatened to disrupt oil and gas shipments to Europe from the Middle East and raised fears of extended delays, good shortages and rising costs for consumers.

Canal authorities have desperately tried to free the vessel by relying on tugs and dredgers alone, even as analysts warned that 400-meter-long ship, may be too heavy for such an operation. As a window for a breakthrough narrows with high tide receding this week, fears have grown that authorities would be forced to lighten the vessel by removing the ship’s 20,000 containers — a complex operation, requiring specialized equipment not found in Egypt, that could take days or weeks.

The salvage team’s next step is dredging beneath the vessel’s bow with high pressure water jets to wrench the ship from the clay, said Berdowski.

“If that doesn’t work, then in the end you will have to remove weight and that can only happen by removing containers from the front,” he added. “But that is a process that will take time.”

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DeBre reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writers Mike Corder at The Hague, Netherlands, and Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report.