DUBAI: Tugs worked Wednesday (Mar 24) to free a giant container ship stuck in the Suez Canal after it veered off course in a sandstorm, officials said, creating huge tailbacks on one of the world's busiest trade routes.
Egypt's Suez Canal Authority (SCA) said it was doing all it could to refloat the Taiwan-run but Panama-flagged MV Ever Given, a 400m-long and 59m-wide vessel, which was lodged at an angle across the waterway.
Historic sections of the canal have been reopened in a bid to ease the bottleneck of backed up marine traffic.
"The container accidentally ran aground after a suspected gust of wind hit it," ship operator Evergreen Marine Corp told AFP.
The SCA said the ship was caught up in a sandstorm, a common occurrence in Egypt's Sinai desert at this time of year, blotting out light and limiting the captain's ability to see.
It was "mainly due to the lack of visibility due to the weather conditions when winds reached 40 knots, which affected the control" of the ship, the SCA said in a statement.
GAC, a Dubai-based marine services company, said authorities were still working to free the ship mid-afternoon on Wednesday, and that information it had received earlier claiming the vessel was partially refloated was inaccurate.
According to satellite data from MarineTraffic.com, the vessel's bow was touching the canal's eastern wall, while its stern looked lodged against its western wall.
The Ever Given is among the largest cargo ships in the world. It can carry about 20,000 containers at a time.
Taiwan's Evergreen Marine Corp, which is leasing the vessel under a time charter, said the shipowner informed it that the ship "was suspected of being hit by a sudden strong wind, causing the hull to deviate from waterway and accidentally hit the bottom and run aground".
"The company has urged the shipowner to report the cause of the incident and has been in discussions with relevant parties including the canal management authority to assist the ship as soon as possible."
All crew are safe and accounted for, said Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement, which manages the MV Ever Given. "There have been no reports of injuries or pollution."
MarineTraffic recorded that the vessel had been in the same position since at least Tuesday afternoon.
SCA chairman Admiral Osama Rabie said in a statement that "rescue and tug units are continuing their efforts" to free the Ever Given.
Bloomberg reported the incident had caused a build-up of more than 100 ships seeking to transit the canal.
Photographs released by the SCA showed excavators onshore digging soil from the canal's bank, with the earth-moving equipment dwarfed by the giant hull towering above.
Instagram user Julianne Cona posted a photo of the grounded ship from the Maersk Denver, now also stuck behind the Ever Given.
"Ship in front of us ran aground while going through the canal and is now stuck sideways," she wrote. "Looks like we might be here for a little bit."
More than 150 years old, the Suez Canal is one of the world's most important trade routes, providing passage for 10 per cent of all international maritime trade.
Nearly 19,000 ships passed through it last year with a total tonnage of 1.17 billion, according to the SCA.
The ship appeared to be stuck about 6km north of the southerly mouth of the canal near the city of Suez, an area of the canal that is a single lane.
That could have a major knock-on effect for global shipping moving between the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea, warned Salvatore R Mercogliano, a former merchant mariner and associate professor of history at North Carolina's Campbell University.
"Every day, 50 vessels on average go through that canal, so the closing of the canal means no vessels are transiting north and south," Mercogliano told the AP.
"Every day the canal is closed ... container ships and tankers are not delivering food, fuel and manufactured goods to Europe and goods are not being exported from Europe to the Far East."
Cargo ships and oil tankers appeared to be lining up at the southern end of the Suez Canal, waiting to be able to pass through the waterway to the Mediterranean Sea, according to MarineTraffic data.
The Ever Given had listed its destination as Rotterdam in the Netherlands prior to getting stuck in the canal.
Opened in 1869, the Suez Canal provides a crucial link for oil, natural gas and cargo being shipping from East to West. Around 10 per cent of the world's trade flows through the waterway and it remains one of Egypt's top foreign currency earners.
In 2015, the government of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi completed a major expansion of the canal, allowing it to accommodate the world’s largest vessels.