Three possible means to unblock Suez Canal; lightening lodged ship is the worst

Ahram Online , Thursday 25 Mar 2021

It has been challenging to shift such a giant ship to re-float again to resume navigation in the world's busiest maritime trade routes that connects Asia and Europe

Suez Canal
This photo released by the Suez Canal Authority on Thursday, March 25, 2021, shows two tugboats next to the Ever Given, a Panama-flagged cargo ship, after it become wedged across the Suez Canal and blocking traffic in the vital waterway from another vessel. AP

As navigation in the Egyptian Suez Canal has been brought to a halt by the 400-metre Ever Given cargo ship that had run aground diagonally, the globe's attention is turned towards the attempts to unblock the international trade route.

It has been challenging to shift such a giant ship, with rising concerns regarding the possible consequences on the already clobbered international trade movement due to the blockage in the busiest maritime trade route that links Asia and Europe.

Efforts are underway to dislodge the ship, include towing and pushing the vessel to refloat the ship, with a specialised salvage company sending a mission to assist the Egyptian authorities in rescue efforts.

The ship ran aground on Tuesday morning due to low visibility and poor navigation believed to be caused by a strong sandstorm and 40-knot winds. The incident heavily impacted oil markets.

Tugging the weight carrier

The first option on the table is tugging the ship from both sides using several giant tugboats with a powerful pull capacity, marine expert Mahmoud Nakhla, the CEO of NASSA Marines, told Ahram Online.

The step is already being tried out. The Suez Canal Authority (SCA), which said it deployed eight large tug boats around the lodged vessel, is working with the largest equipped with a towing power of 160 tons.

The only obstacle in the way of this approach is the positioning of salvage equipment to carry out the pushing and pulling attempts, the NASSA expert explained.

"Unfortunately, the powerful tugboats are positioned on the canal's northern side while it should be distributed on both sides, which is difficult due to the closure of the southern side by the giant ship, he added.

Clearing sand under the bow

The second alternative is deploying dredgers to clear sand and mud under the bow of the vessel and impeding its movement, he clarified.

It would not be easy to expect how long the first or second scenario could take as it depends on how solidly the ship is grounded, Nakhla stressed.

"The part on which the vessel is grounded could be clay and sand, therefore it could take up to 7-8 hours, or it could be rocky, so it could take 20 hours," he noted.

The 224,000-tonne Taiwan-owned container includes 63 bulk carriers, 28 crude tankers, and one LNG carrier, among others, according to the maritime intelligence service.

There have been dredgers working in the area to clear sand and mud from around the vessel, besides tugboats, according to Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement (BSM), the technical manager of Ever Given.

However, there is as possibility the attempt stalls as the dredgers’ ability is limited, said Nakhla.

BSM also described the situation as “extremely difficult.”

Lightening the ship

The worst-case scenario will be unloading some containers from the ship before lightning it, signalled a marine expert who said the step would be considered if the first two options reached no further progress.

The move is not excluded by Smit Salvage, a unit of the Dutch marine services company Boskalis, which was hired to help free the ship.

Peter Berdowski, CEO of Boskalis, told the country media on Wednesday that containers could be unloaded to lose as much weight as possible, describing the ship as a "beached whale" in reference to the difficulty of pulling it loose.

Berdowski, however, did not expand on the methodology the Dutch mission will adopt, saying that "it remains to be investigated… the first thing you have to do is calculate."

Nakhla said the major problem is that with such a 52-metre plus high ship, the unloading process is “complicated” and could take a month or 45 days. The cost would be "expensive," he said.

He attributed the difficulty of the step to the unavailability of the winches that could help.

The largest salvage winche the Suez Canal Authority has is unable to unload the ship, he said.

In addition, taking off the ship’s containers will necessitate dispatching another smaller vessel, he added.

“It is a complicated process,” he assured.

He also said the more time passes, the more the situation gets worse, adding "the ship is not grounded, but also rested, with its massive weight, on the [bank]."

Uncharted salvage plans would worsen the situation, warned the expert.

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