Egyptian authorities have said that high tides and the arrival of extra tug boats could finally free the stricken container ship blocking the Suez canal as the crisis entered its seventh day.
The next attempt to refloat the MV Ever Given was expected to take place on Monday evening, Egyptian authorities said, after salvage attempts were paused on Sunday to wait for the extra tugs to arrive and while more excavation and dredging was carried out under the ship.
Leth agencies, which provides crossing services to clients using the canal, said on Twitter late on Sunday that the Suez Canal Authority (SCA) had postponed the attempt.
“SCA has decided to postpone the next refloating attempt until sufficient tug power is in place,” it said, adding “a likely time for the next attempt is Monday evening”.
However, the attempt to free the ship, which became wedged across the southern section of the vital international waterway on 23 March, could be complicated by a rock formation discovered under the ship’s bow.
According to Reuters, two sources at the SCA said that a mass of rock had been found at the bow of the ship. That appeared to be confirmed by the focus late on Sunday on digging to remove the lining of the canal around the bow, which ploughed into the bank when the ship veered out of control.
Diggers were working to remove parts of the canal’s bank and expand dredging close to the ship’s bow to a depth of 18 metres (59ft), the SCA said in a statement.
From the dredging done so far it was still unclear whether the ship was stuck on soft sand, compact sand or clay, which will determine how easily it may shift free, said one official involved in the salvage operation.
A tug registered in the Netherlands arrived and would join efforts to re-float the ship on Sunday evening, the ship’s technical manager Bernhard Schulte Ship management (BSM) said.
Suez Canal Authority (SCA) chief Osama Rabie told an Egyptian news channel the ship had moved from side to side for the first time late Saturday.
“It is a good sign,” he said, adding that 14 tugboats were deployed around the stricken vessel and salvage crews were working round the clock.
Richard Meade, an editor at shipping data and news company Lloyd’s List, said sources close to the salvage operation had voiced optimism “that the vessel could be moved within the next 24-48 hours”.
But Ihab Talaat el-Bannane, a former Egyptian admiral, cautioned that the accident had taken place in a part of the canal where the ground was rocky and difficult to dig.
“At some point, the ground experts will have to stop digging to avoid earth collapsing onto the ship,” he said.
Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has ordered preparations for the possible removal of some of the ship’s 18,300 containers, Rabie said.
Any operation to lighten the ship’s load would not start before Monday, an SCA source said, as salvage teams try to manoeuvre the ship free before high tides recede next week. Experts have warned that such a process could be complex and lengthy. The SCA said it hoped it would not be necessary,
The 400m-long (1,300ft) Ever Given became jammed diagonally across a southern section of the canal in high winds early on 23 March, halting traffic on the shortest shipping route between Europe and Asia.
At least 369 vessels are waiting to transit the canal, Rabie said, including dozens of container ships, bulk carriers, oil tankers and liquefied natural gas (LNG) or liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) vessels.
Allianz warned the blockage was “the straw that breaks global trade’s back”.
“Suppliers’ delivery times have lengthened since the start of the year and are now longer in Europe than during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic,” it said.
Many other ships have already been re-routed around South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope in order to circumvent the Suez blockage, although the 5,500-mile (9,000km) diversion takes 7 to 10 days longer and adds a huge fuel bill to the trip between Asia and Europe.
There has been a “surge” in the number of vessels opting for the African route, Lloyd’s List said on Sunday.
“Most major container lines are now diverting ships round Cape of Good Hope and warning of supply chain disruption ahead. Some are starting to reject bookings,” it said on Twitter.
Each day of the blockade could be costing global trade some $6-10bn, according to a study published Friday by German insurer Allianz. That translates to some 0.2 to 0.4 percentage points of annual trade growth each week. And each day is costing the Egyptian treasury up to $14m in lost tolls.
Egypt is losing some $12m to 14m in revenue from the canal for each day it is closed, Rabie said, while Lloyd’s List has said the blockage was holding up an estimated $9.6bn-worth of cargo each day between Asia and Europe.
Cargo giant Maersk said that by the end of the weekend, a total of 32 Maersk and partner vessels would be directly affected by the blockage, with 15 redirected.