Suez Canal is blocked: How one ship has disrupted global trade

Julianne Cona/Instagram

Egypt’s Suez Canal is one of the world’s most important waterways. Located 75 miles east of Cairo, it links the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea, allowing for direct shipping from Europe to Asia. Roughly 12% of the world’s shipping traffic and a chunk of its oil supply goes through the man-made canal, which has become particularly vital following pandemic related disruptions to shipping. 

That’s why it’s a big deal that a 1,312-foot-long cargo ship named Ever Given has become stuck across the Suez Canal. With the waterway blockage entering its fourth day, and attempts to move the cargo ship unsuccessful thus far, the fallout could reverberate around the world. 

What’s the latest update?

The Ever Given is still very much stuck. After being lodged aground on Tuesday morning, authorities have been working to extract the vessel for two days. Time is of the essence here. Experts say that a couple days of delay would be a major inconvenience for shipping companies — but a week or more of delays could prove catastrophic, and not just for shipping companies.

Peter Berdowski, CEO of Boskalis, the company leading the rescue effort, has cautioned that the Ever Given being stuck for weeks is a very real possibility.

“We can’t exclude it might take weeks, depending on the situation,” Berdowski told the Dutch television programme Nieuwsuur.  

Shoei Kisen Kaisha, the company that owns the Ever Given, released a statement Thursday apologising for the issue.

“We are determined to keep on working hard to resolve this situation as soon as possible,” Shoei Kisen Kaisha said. “We would like to apologize to all parties affected by this incident, including the ships travelling and planning to travel through Suez Canal.”  

Wait, what happened on Tuesday?

Ever Given is a 2 million ton cargo ship that spans a quarter mile, roughly the length of four football fields. You’ll notice “Evergreen” is the written across its body but, confusingly, that’s branding for the Taiwanese company that operates the ship, Evergreen Marine Corp. 

On Tuesday, just before 8 a.m. Egypt time, strong gusts of wind knocked it off course. En route to Rotterdam from China, it was holding around 20,000 shipping containers of cargo when it became wedged in the canal’s east bank.

“The accident is mainly due to the lack of visibility resulting from bad weather conditions as the country passes through a dust storm, with wind speed reaching 40 knots,” Suez Canal Authority head Osama Rabie said in a statement. 


Planet Labs

No one on board was injured, according to the ship’s technical manager, Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement (BSM). But the task of extricating the Ever Given is momentous. The ship is wedged diagonally, as you can see in the above aerial shot, and is longer than the Canal is wide. The ship spans 1,312 feet while the Canal’s width ranges from 205 to 225 feet. 

The Suez Canal Authority, a government organization that runs and maintains the canal, deployed a gang of tugboats on Tuesday to pull the Ever Given out of its predicament, but as of Thursday has yet to prove successful.

As the tugboats continue to attempt to extract the ship, Smit Salvage, a renowned maritime rescue company, has been hired to assist.

“It will be critical to inspect the vessel and how deeply it is lodged in the embankment,” a spokesperson said. “The question is how solidly she has been grounded.” 

Officials from Smit Salvage on Thursday told AP that the rescue operation could take “days to weeks.” 


Screenshot from Vesselfinder

What does this mean? 

“Ship in front of us ran aground while going through the canal and is now stuck sideways,” Julianne Cona wrote on Instagram as she snapped a photo of Ever Given from her own cargo ship, “looks like we might be here for a little bit.”

It’s one of the approximately 150 ships that have amassed in the bottleneck by Thursday. Around 50 ships pass through the Canal each day, according to official statistics. 

Shipping companies now face a dilemma: wait for the Ever Given to be floated or divert around the Horn of Africa, another sea route that links Europe and Asia. The latter option would delay shipments by up to 14 days. 

Such delays could cause severe shortages, as the global shipping industry is already beset by a lack of shipping containers and other complications arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. Oil is particularly vulnerable to the blockage, with the Suez Canal being a key route for transporting oil from the Middle East to Asia and Europe. 

Brent crude oil, the price of which is used as an international benchmark, rose 2.85% after news of the Ever Given’s plight broke. The rise is tempered by further COVID-19 lockdown restrictions in Europe, which has decreased demand for oil. Local officials hope the issue can be resolved within days, but longer delays would make oil price spikes the beginning of the world’s trouble.

“We’re talking about vaccines, manufacturing goods, food, everything. It’s potential catastrophic delays,” Sal Mercogliano, associate professor at Campbell University, said in a statement to media. 

Has this happened before?


Following mechanical issues, a Japanese vessel became lodged in the ground under the canal water in 2017. Tugboats refloated the ship within hours. A year prior, the CSCL Indian Ocean spent five days aground before being pulled out by tugboats. 

Officials at the Suez Canal are hoping the Ever Given is refloated on a timescale closer to the 2017 Japanese vessel than the 2016 CSCL Indian Ocean. 

If the vessel can be righted in two days, Sea-Intelligence vice president of product and operations told Reuters, “the impact will be limited to a gradual worsening of already very bad vessel delays.

“If on the other hand, the Suez Canal remains blocked for another three-to-five days, then this will start to have very serious global ramifications.”

Is Twitter taking it seriously?

Of course not! Here are the very best Suez Canal reactions. 

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