A container ship longer than the Empire State Building is tall may take weeks to free after becoming wedged diagonally across the Suez Canal.
One of the largest cargo ships in the world, the 400 metre-long Ever Given has blocked all traffic in both directions of the Egyptian trade route.
Peter Berdowski, CEO of Dutch company Boskalis which is trying to refloat the ship, said the Ever Given is stuck “like a beached whale”.
Pictures posted on social media showed the skyscraper-sized cargo ship blocking the entire width of the Canal.
It has created a major traffic jam through one of the world’s busiest shipping channels for oil and grain and other trade linking Asia and Europe.
The Suez Canal Authority (SCA) said eight tug boats have been deployed to unwedge the Ever Given, which got stuck on Tuesday morning amid high winds and a dust storm.
Ever Given’s technical manager BSM said dredgers were working to clear sand and mud from around it while tugboats in conjunction with Ever Given’s winches work to shift it.
Mr Berdowski fears, “it might take weeks” to free the mega ship “depending on the situation”.
He said the ship’s bow and stern had been lifted up against either side of the canal, creating one of the worst shipping jams seen for years.
“It’s an enormous weight on the sand. We might have to work with a combination of reducing the weight by removing containers, oil and water from the ship, tug boats and dredging of sand,” Mr Berdowski said.
Egypt’s Leth Agencies said 156 large container ships, tankers carrying oil and gas, and bulk vessels hauling grain are backed up at either end of the canal.
Just three ships were being escorted out of the canal, it added.
The blockage comes on top of the disruption to world trade already caused in the past year by COVID-19, with trade volumes hit by high rates of ship cancellations, shortages of containers and slower handling speeds at ports.
The SCA, which had allowed some vessels to enter the canal in the hope the blockage could be cleared, said it had temporarily suspended all traffic on Thursday.
Shipping giant Maersk said in a customer advisory it had seven vessels affected.
A new attempt to move it would take place later on Thursday, the ship’s technical manager, Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement (BSM), said.
Roughly 30 per cent of the world’s shipping container volume transits through the 193 kilometre Suez Canal daily and about 12 per cent of total global trade of all goods.
Shipping experts say that if the blockage is not cleared in the coming days, some shipping may re-route around Africa, which would add roughly a week to the journey.
“Every port in western Europe is going to feel this,” Leon Willems, a spokesman for Rotterdam Port, Europe’s largest, said.
“We hope for both companies and consumers that it will be resolved soon. When these ships do arrive in Europe, there will inevitably be longer waiting times.”
Consultancy Wood Mackenzie said the biggest impact was on container shipping but there were also a total of 16 laden crude and product oil tankers due to sail through the canal and now delayed.
The tankers were carrying 870,000 tonnes of crude and 670,000 tonnes of clean oil products such as gasoline, naphtha and diesel, it said.
Japanese shipowner Shoei Kisen apologised for the incident and said work on freeing the ship, which was heading to Europe from China, “has been extremely difficult” and it was not clear when the vessel would float again.
Two professional rescue teams from the Netherlands and Japan will work with local authorities to design a more effective plan to refloat the vessel, the company leasing it, Taiwan’s Evergreen Marine Corp said.