Tugs and dredgers try to free mega-ship blocking Suez Canal

Cairo, Egypt: Tugboats and dredgers were working Friday to free a giant container ship blocking Egypt's Suez Canal for a fourth day, forcing companies to re-route services from the vital shipping lane around Africa.

The MV Ever Given, which is longer than four football fields, has been wedged diagonally across the entire canal since Tuesday, shutting the waterway in both directions.

The blockage has caused a huge traffic jam for more than 200 ships at either end of the 193-kilometer (120-mile) long canal and major delays in the delivery of oil and other products.

An official from Shoei Kisen Kaisha, the Japanese company that owns the Ever Given, said Friday that crews were working to refloat the ship.

"Tugboats and dredgers are being used to crush rocks" in efforts to dislodge the boat, she told AFP, adding the company did not have information on any damage to the vessel.

Crews were seen working through the night, using a large dredging machine under floodlights.

But the vessel with a gross tonnage of 219,000 and deadweight of 199,000 has yet to budge, forcing global shipping giant Maersk and Germany's Hapag-Lloyd to look into re-routing around the southern tip of Africa.

"With the Suez Canal set to remain blocked for at least another day or two, shipping companies are being forced to confront the spectre of taking the far longer route around the Cape of Good Hope to get to Europe or the east coast of North America," said Lloyd's List, a shipping data and news company.

"The first container ship to do this is Evergreen's Ever Greet... a sistership to Ever Given," it said, adding the route takes an additional 12 days.

'Human error'?

Egypt's Suez Canal Authority said the mega-ship veered off course and ran aground when winds reaching 40 knots whipped up a sandstorm that affected visibility.

Shipping expert Rose George said the blockage was certain to cause price increases for consumers around the world.

"It is inevitable there's going to be some knock-on cost effect," said George, who cast doubt on the official reason that gusts of wind caused the ship's grounding.

"I don't know if that's true, but I do know that more than two-thirds of marine accidents are due to human error," she told AFP in London.

Lloyd's List said data indicated that 213 vessels were now stalled at either end of the canal, which links the Mediterranean and the Red Sea.

The blockage was holding up an estimated $9.6 billion worth of cargo each day between Asia and Europe, it said.

"Rough calculations suggest westbound traffic is worth around $5.1 billion daily while eastbound traffic is worth $4.5 billion," said Lloyd's.

The canal authority has said between 15,000 and 20,000 cubic meters of sand would have to be removed in order to reach a depth of 12-16 meters and refloat the ship.

If those efforts fail, salvage teams will look to unload some of the Ever Given's cargo and take advantage of a spring high tide next week to move the vessel.

Fears of weeks-long blockage

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's seaports adviser, Mohab Mamish, who oversaw the recent expansion of the waterway, told AFP late Thursday that "maritime navigation will resume again within 48-72 hours, maximum".

Salvage experts had already warned the shutdown could last days or even weeks, however.

Evergreen has asked Smit Salvage -- which has worked on the wrecks of Russian nuclear submarine Kursk and Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia -- and Japanese company Nippon Salvage and to put in place a "more effective plan" to refloat the Panama-flagged vessel.

Turkey on Friday offered to send a tugboat to help Egypt free the ship, as it pressed on with its bid to mend ties with regional rivals.

Transport and Infrastructure Minister Adil Karaismailoglu said Turkey's Nene Hatun ship was "one of the few machines in the world capable of carrying out an operation of this magnitude".

"We offered to help them and if they respond favorably, we will send help," Karaismailoglu was quoted as saying.

Crude prices jumped by almost six percent Wednesday in response to the canal blockage.

But they tumbled on Thursday, at one point completely wiping out the gains.

"Oil prices corrected excess gains that accumulated from the Suez Canal blockage as the disruption's effect is likely not one that will last too long," said Bjornar Tonhaugen of energy consultancy Rystad.

Russia said on Friday that the jam had highlighted the importance of further developing its Arctic shipping route, which is increasingly accessible due to climate change.

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