Egypt prepares to unload containers from ship blocking Suez after other measures fail

Abbie Cheeseman
·3 min read
A handout satellite image made available by MAXAR Technologies shows excavation around the bow of the 'Ever Given' and dredging operations in progress - Shutterstock
A handout satellite image made available by MAXAR Technologies shows excavation around the bow of the 'Ever Given' and dredging operations in progress - Shutterstock

Egypt is beginning preparations for the laborious task of unloading containers from the grounded ship that is blocking the Suez Canal, after a weekend of unsuccessful floating attempts.

The Suez authorities had hoped to avoid a complex and time-consuming unloading operation, but on Sunday Egypt’s president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, gave orders for it to go ahead.

Removing some of the almost 20,000 containers from the Ever Given is likely to see the canal closed for more days, as it requires specialist equipment that has not yet arrived.

Experts fear it could also cause damage to the ship if it upsets its delicately-spread balance of weight.

"His excellency has ordered that we should not wait for the failure of the first and second scenarios to start thinking about implementing the third one," Lt. Gen. Osama Rabie, chairman of the Suez Canal Authority told Egyptian TV.

Tugboats have worked through the night to free the Ever Given - AFP
Tugboats have worked through the night to free the Ever Given - AFP

The authorities had pinned their hopes on moving the grounded vessel during spring high tides over the weekend. But those hopes were dashed when, according to shipping officials, the 220,000 ton ship moved just two degrees (100 foot) during Saturday night’s refloating attempt. At least 321 other ships are now backed up because of the blockage.

Officials are expected to make one last attempts at refloating during high tide on Sunday night before resorting to unloading. A spring tide on Monday is also supposed to raise the canal’s water level as much as 18 inches.

An armada of up to 12 tugboats have been trying to help dislodge the ship, which is the length of Empire State Building. Dredgers have also been vacuuming the sand and mud that the vessel is stuck in, while diggers excavate the eastern wall of the Suez canal.

Suez canal, tug boat direction of pull
Suez canal, tug boat direction of pull

The latest to join the operation were the Dutch-flagged Alp Guard, a specialist tugboat, which arrived at the location on Sunday, according to the ship's technical management company, Bernard Schulte Shipmanagement.

Italian-flagged Carlo Magno was also close, having reached the Red Sea near the city of Suez early Sunday, satellite data from MarineTraffic.com showed.

By Sunday afternoon, the dredgers had removed more than 27 thousand cubic metres of sand from around the ship, to a depth of 18 metres, according to Leth Agencies, the canal’s service provider.

While the ship is still firmly wedged diagonally across the canal, the around-the-clock efforts of the past five days brought about small positive movements.

“The rudder was not moving and it is now moving, the propeller is working now, there was no water underneath the bow, and now there is water under it, and yesterday there was a 4-metre deviation in the bow and the stern,” said Lt. Rabie.

However, two canal authorities sources told Reuters on Sunday that a mass of rock had been found at the bow of the ship, complicating salvage efforts.

Each day that the Ever Given is stuck puts the global supply chain one step closer to full-blown crisis, completely disrupting traffic that is valued at over $9 billion a day.

Syria has already begun rationing fuel as the blockage of the Suez Canal has worsened the country’s shortages. Neighbouring Lebanon is also concerned about fuel supply delays.