Suez Canal jam: How to dislodge a 200,000-tonne ship from a canal wall

The container ship Ever Given was hit by strong winds and ran aground in the Suez Canal in Egypt on March 23, 2021. PHOTO: AFP/PLANET LABS, REUTERS

CAIRO (BLOOMBERG) - When you cannot shift a ship that is stuck fast into the wall of a canal that is vital to world trade, there is only one thing to do: Call the salvage guys.

The Ever Given container ship - a 200,000-tonne behemoth - has been blocking what is arguably the world's most important waterway, the Suez Canal, since Tuesday morning (March 23).

The struggle to dislodge it is now turning the world's attention to the work of SMIT Salvage, a legendary Dutch company whose employees parachute themselves from one ship wreckage to the next, saving vessels often during violent storms.

The company is synonymous with some of the most daring naval salvages, including lifting a sunken Russian nuclear submarine in 2001, and removing fuel from inside the Costa Concordia cruise ship after it ran aground in Italy in 2012.

SMIT, a unit of Royal Boskalis Westminster, is one of the companies appointed by Ever Given's owner to help move the vessel. The first job will be to work out exactly how entrenched in the wall the ship is, said Boskalis spokesman Martijn Schuttevaer.

"It will be critical to inspect the vessel and (find out) how deeply it is lodged in the embankment," Mr Schuttevaer said. "The question is how solidly she has been grounded."

The answer to that question will dictate what comes next.

The salvors could have to find a way to lighten the vessel's enormous weight so that it can be pulled to a less obstructive position. At the moment, it is blocking the path of more than 100 vessels.

The canal handles at least 10 per cent of seaborne trade, spanning everything from finished goods to oil, gas and dry-bulk commodities. And those cargoes are not flowing while the Ever Given is stuck.

The process of making the ship lighter means removing things such as the ballast water, which helps keep ships steady when they are at sea. Fuel will probably have to be unloaded too, Mr Schuttavaer said.

In a worst-case scenario, it could be that some of the carrier's containers - usually filled with everything from furniture to televisions - may have to be taken off. How long that process lasts would depend on how much equipment is around to do the heavy lifting. It can often involve flying in helicopters to remove the crates one by one.

Workers next to Ever Given container ship container ship, which was hit by strong winds and ran aground the Suez Canal. PHOTO: REUTERS

SMIT will fly an eight-person team in at dawn on Thursday local time to board and inspect the vessel and the grounding. A big part of the initial underwater assessment is how much the banks slope at that point in the canal.

Such teams are usually led by a salvage master, often a former captain or someone with knowledge of the industry, but can also include divers, welders and crane operators, according to Mr Joseph Farrell, director of business development at Resolve Marine, another company that offers salvage services. He declined to comment specifically on the Ever Given.

Pictures now seen across the globe of the vessel, which is spread fully across the canal, point to the first major hurdle. It ran aground both at the front and at the back, almost perpendicular to the canal walls. SMIT said that leaves very little room to simply tow it away from either end.

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On Wednesday (Mar 24), eight tug boats attempted to free one of the world's largest container ships, a 400-metre behemoth that ran aground in the Suez Canal, blocking one of the world's most important waterways.

For now, the focus is on dredging around the vessel. The canal authority has dispatched two of its dredgers, the Mashor and the 10th of Ramadan, to remove sand from underwater before rescuers attempt to pull it.

From the shore, excavators are also working around the vessel.

Western shipping experts who analysed photos of the Ever Given calculated that her protruding bulb was as much as 5m buried into the canal wall.

Officials monitoring the Ever Given on March 24, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Not everything in the grounding has been bad news. One thing that is likely to make the process easier is that the ship is stuck in sand, rather than rock. More malleable material around the Ever Given should make for a slightly smoother escape.

There are already tug boats around the ship working to help with its removal, but with such a giant vessel, bigger ones with more horsepower are usually needed. Crews are hoping that periods of higher tide over the next few days will be conducive to helping free the Ever Given.

Until then, the world's commodity and maritime markets - and the world trade they serve - will be left hanging, waiting on the professionals to help shift a 200,000-tonne ship.

"There are only a few companies in the world that do what we do," said Mr Farrell. "It's a challenge; the container ships are always the biggest jobs."

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