CAIRO: The Japanese owners of a giant container vessel blocking the Suez Canal said on Thursday (Mar 25) they were facing "extreme difficulty" refloating it, prompting Egypt to suspend navigation through one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.
It could take weeks to free the ship, said a salvage company, forcing businesses to consider diverting their cargos to the much longer route around the tip of Africa in a blow to global supply networks.
The Suez Canal Authority (SCA) announced that it was "temporarily suspending navigation" through one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.
It said it was doing all it could to refloat the Panama-flagged MV Ever Given, a 400m-long vessel that veered off course and ran aground in a sandstorm on Tuesday.
Satellite pictures released by Planet Labs Inc show the 59m-wide container ship wedged diagonally across the entire canal. It is now blocking transit in both directions through one of the world's busiest shipping channels for goods, oil, grain and other products linking Asia and Europe.
More than 200 large container ships, tankers carrying oil and gas, and bulk vessels hauling grain have backed up at either end of the canal, according to tracking data, creating one of the worst shipping jams seen for years.
Japanese ship-leasing firm Shoei Kisen Kaisha said it owned the giant vessel and was facing "extreme difficulty" trying to refloat it.
"In co-operation with local authorities and Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement, a vessel management company, we are trying to refloat (the ship), but we are facing extreme difficulty," Shoei Kisen Kaisha said in a statement on its website.
"We sincerely apologise for causing a great deal of worry to ships in the Suez Canal and those planning to go through the canal."
Maritime sources told AFP Thursday that a new dredger had been deployed to speed up the operation while northern convoy ships remain docked in the waiting areas of the canal.
"We've never seen anything like it before," said Ranjith Raja, Middle East oil and shipping researcher at international financial data firm Refinitiv.
"It is likely that the congestion ... will take several days or weeks to sort out as it will have a knock-on effect on other convoys."
A team from Dutch firm Smit Salvage is due to arrive in the canal zone on Thursday, said Peter Berdowski, CEO of its parent company Boskalis.
When asked about the challenges of moving the vessel, Berdowski told the Dutch TV news programme Nieuwsuur: "It's really a heavy whale on the beach, so to speak."
He added: "We can't exclude it might take weeks, depending on the situation."
Broker Braemar warned that if tug boats are unable to move the giant vessel, some of its cargo might have to be removed by crane barge to refloat it.
"This can take days, maybe weeks," it said.
Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement (BSM), the technical manager of Ever Given, said dredgers were working to clear sand and mud from around the vessel to free her while tugboats in conjunction with Ever Given's winches are working to shift it.
According to the Japanese ship owner, there were 25 crew on board, all of them of Indian nationality. The ship was fully laden with consumer goods bound for European markets in 20,000 standard shipping containers.
A MarineTraffic map showed large clusters of vessels circling as they waited in both the Mediterranean to the north and the Red Sea to the south.
Historic sections of the canal were reopened in a bid to ease the bottleneck, with dozens of ships waiting at both ends of the waterway.
The waterway drastically shortens travel between Asia and Europe because it prevents vessels from having to navigate around southern Africa's Cape of Good Hope.
The Singapore-to-Rotterdam route, for example, is 6,000 kilometres and up to two weeks shorter via the canal than going around Africa.
Roughly 30 per cent of the world's shipping container volume transits through the 193km Suez Canal daily, and about 12 per cent of total global trade of all goods.
It is an "absolutely critical" route because "all traffic arriving from Asia goes through the Suez Canal," said Camille Egloff, a maritime transport specialist at Boston Consulting Group.
Nearly 19,000 ships passed through the canal last year carrying more than one billion tonnes of cargo, according to the SCA. Egypt earned US$5.61 billion in revenues.