A skyscraper-sized container ship has become wedged across Egypt’s Suez Canal and blocked all traffic in the vital waterway.
The Ever Given, a Panama-flagged ship that carries cargo between Asia and Europe, ran aground on Tuesday in the narrow, man-made canal dividing continental Africa from the Sinai Peninsula.
Images showed the ship’s bow was touching the eastern wall, while its stern looked lodged against the western wall — an extraordinary event that experts said they had never heard of happening before in the canal’s 150-year history.
Tugboats strained on Wednesday to try to nudge the obstruction out of the way as ships hoping to enter the waterway began lining up in the Mediterranean and Red Seas.
But it remained unclear when the route, through which around 10% of world trade flows and which is particularly crucial for the transport of oil, would reopen.
One official warned it could take at least two days.
“The Suez Canal will not spare any efforts to ensure the restoration of navigation and to serve the movement of global trade,” vowed Lieutenant General Ossama Rabei, head of the Suez Canal Authority.
Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement, which manages the Ever Given, said all 20 members of the crew were safe and that there had been “no reports of injuries or pollution”.
It was not immediately clear what caused the Ever Given to become wedged on Tuesday morning. GAC, a global shipping and logistics company, said the ship had experience a blackout without elaborating.
Bernhard Schulte, however, denied the ship ever lost power.
Evergreen Marine Corp, a major Taiwan-based shipping company that operates the ship, said in a statement that the Ever Given had been overcome by strong winds as it entered the canal from the Red Sea but none of its containers had sunk.
An Egyptian official similarly blamed a strong wind. Egyptian forecasters said high winds and a sandstorm plagued the area Tuesday, with winds gusting as much as 30 mph (50 kph).
A pilot from Egypt’s canal authority typically boards a ship to guide it through the waterway, though the ship’s captain retains ultimate authority over the vessel, said Ranjith Raja, a lead analyst at the data firm Refinitiv.
An image posted to Instagram by a user on another waiting cargo ship appeared to show the Ever Given wedged across the canal as shown in satellite images and data.
A backhoe appeared to be digging into the sand bank under its bow in an effort to free it.
The Egyptian official said tugboats hoped to refloat the ship and that the operation would take at least two days. The ship ran aground some 3.7 miles (6km) north of the southernly mouth of the canal near the city of Suez, an area of the canal that is a single lane.
The incident could have a major knock-on effect for global shipping moving between the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea, warned Salvatore R Mercogliano, a former merchant mariner and associate professor of history at North Carolina’s Campbell University.
“Every day, 50 vessels on average go through that canal, so the closing of the canal means no vessels are transiting north and south,” Mr Mercogliano told the AP.
“Every day the canal is closed … container ships and tankers are not delivering food, fuel and manufactured goods to Europe and goods are not being exported from Europe to the Far East.”
Already, some 30 vessels waited at Egypt’s Great Bitter Lake midway on the canal, while some 40 idled in the Mediterranean near Port Said and another 30 at Suez in the Red Sea, according to canal service provider Leth Agencies.
That included seven vessels carrying some five million barrels of crude oil, Refinitiv said.
The Ever Given, built in 2018 with a length of nearly 400 meters and a width of 59 meters (193ft), is among the largest cargo ships in the world.
It can carry some 20,000 containers at a time. It previously had been at ports in China before heading toward Rotterdam in the Netherlands.
Opened in 1869, the Suez Canal provides a crucial link for oil, natural gas and cargo. It also remains one of Egypt’s top foreign currency earners.
In 2015, the government of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi completed a major expansion of the canal, allowing it to accommodate the world’s largest vessels. However, the Ever Given ran aground south of that new portion of the canal.