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How That Massive Ship Got Stuck in the Suez Canal—and Why Nobody Can Get It Out

How That Massive Ship Got Stuck in the Suez Canal—and Why Nobody Can Get It Out
How That Massive Ship Got Stuck in the Suez Canal—and Why Nobody Can Get It Out
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  • A massive container ship called the Ever Given has blocked the Suez Canal, preventing travel through one of the world's busiest shipping corridors.
  • The vessel, which belongs to the shipping company Evergreen Marine, became stranded in the waterway after facing high winds on Tuesday.
  • As of Friday afternoon, crews were still working to excavate the humongous ship.

    A colossal container ship that ran aground in the Suez Canal on Tuesday has ensnarled one of the world's busiest shipping lanes in a marine traffic jam.

    Two days later, more than 100 container ships are still waiting at each end of the canal as tugboats and dredgers struggle to free the Ever Given, which weighs 200,000 metric tons and stretches 1300 feet long.

    "It's just like having an accident on the interstate," Donald Maier, the dean for the School of Maritime Transportation, Logistics, and Management at the California Maritime Academy, told Popular Mechanics. "That accident shuts down all lanes of travel, and everything will then start to back up."

    If the Panamanian-flagged ship isn't freed soon, it could spell disaster for a global shipping industry already hobbled by the effects of COVID-19.

    How Did the Ship Get Stuck?

    The Ever Given, which is owned by the Japanese company Shoei Kisen Kaisha, was on its way to the port of Rotterdam from China when it became stuck after a sandstorm blew through the region. Visibility plummeted, and wind gusts reached speeds of up to 31 miles per hour.

    In addition to the eight local tugboats working to free the Ever Given, a small fleet of construction vehicles—dwarfed by the size of the 1300-foot-long ship—has appeared at the shore to dig the giant vessel out. However, that effort to free the ship hadn't worked as of Thursday morning, according to a statement provided to the New York Times, and authorities have since brought in a dredger to assist in the efforts.

    How Will the Ship Get “Unstuck”?

    So, now what? The key to "unsticking" the Ever Given will be lightening the ship's load. One way to do that is to empty the ballast tanks. That solution, however, could destabilize the ship, Captain Morgan McManus, Master, Empire State VI, of SUNY Maritime College, tells Pop Mech. Another option would be to unload the ship's cargo, but that could prove difficult without the necessary equipment readily available.

    "In the middle of the Suez Canal, there's no infrastructure for that, so that would mean getting a crane barge alongside and then taking those boxes off one at a time," says McManus. With a ship as big as the Ever Given, the effort could take weeks.

    How Does Something Like This Happen?

    The gargantuan Ever Given, which the shipping company Evergreen Marine built in 2018, is a Golden-class container ship. It can carry as many as 20,000 20-foot-long shipping containers.

    The push to build increasingly larger ships may partially be to blame for the Ever Given's precarious situation. "The scale has gotten so big that a lot of the infrastructure has yet to catch up with the size of the ship," McManus says.

    Steering ships of the Ever Given's size can be challenging, and any evasive maneuvers must be done far in advance to ensure the ship has enough horsepower to make the move in time. It takes a skilled crew to anticipate potential issues. In some cases, a captain may not recognize an issue before it's too late.

    Adverse weather conditions only exacerbate these challenges.

    "It's basically a huge wall," Steven Browne, the Department Chair of Marine Transportation and International Business and logistics at the California Maritime Academy, tells Pop Mech. "If there's wind from the beam, or the side of the vessel, and you have a lack of steering control, it's very easy for the ship to be turned sideways."

    Why Is the Suez Canal So Important?

    The Suez Canal snakes through Egypt and serves as the sole connection between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. The 120-mile-long waterway has become a vital shipping passage and can accommodate as many as 50 ships a day, quickly linking markets in Asia and Europe. Roughly 12 percent of all maritime trade makes its way through the Suez; it's second only to the Panama Canal, the world's busiest marine throughway.

    The Egyptian pharaoh Senausert III, who reigned from 1887 to 1849 B.C.E., is credited with first digging the canal. According to the Suez Canal Authority, it has opened and closed numerous times since its official inauguration in 1869. In 2015, crews expanded parts of the passage to allow travel in both directions at certain points along the nearly 80-foot-deep waterway.

    This isn't the first time a vessel has run aground in the Suez Canal. A Japanese container ship, OOCL Japan, rammed into the side of the waterway in 2017. Fortunately, crews refloated the ship hours later. The canal was also closed for three days in 2004 after the Liberian-flagged oil tanker Tropic Brilliance became stuck.

    What Happens Next?

    Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, the global shipping industry has faced several shortages or setbacks in the past year. The obstruction of the canal could set off a domino effect of delays. "Just like on the interstate, once that accident is cleared, you still have this bottleneck of everybody trying to rush through," Maier says.

    Ports strategically plan their labor needs and offloading capacity, so even minor delays can snowball into large delays that have the potential to derail entire supply chains. They could become overwhelmed by the influx of delayed ships on top of ships that arrive on time from other locations.

    And while there may be some wiggle room in a ship's charter to account for, say, the adverse weather or the wait to get into port, "they usually don't plan on having the Suez Canal closed for days on end," Browne says. If the blockage lasts any longer, ships stranded on either side of the Suez may decide to turn around and take the scenic route down around the southern tip of Africa.

    The impacts of the Ever Given's precarious situation could be passed on to customers in the form of additional delays, higher prices, and bare shelves, impacting everything from fuel to sneakers to TVs. "There is everything on that ship," McManus says. "If you buy it in a store, it is on that ship."

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