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Suez Canal crisis: Cargo ships change course as crisis prolongs with no solution in sight

Continuing the Floatation Works of the Grounding Vessel in the Suez Canal on 25 March 2021 [Suez Canal Media Center]
The Floatation Works of the Grounding Vessel in the Suez Canal on 25 March 2021 [Suez Canal Media Center]

Data analysis company Kepler Analytics announced on Friday that seven vessels transporting liquefied natural gas (LNG) had diverted their course away from the Suez Canal due to the blockage caused by a giant container ship since Tuesday. The crisis has entered its fourth day with no apparent solution in sight.

Kepler analyst Rebecca Shea confirmed that three of the tankers were diverted to the longer route around the Cape of Good Hope, adding that the majority of diverted ships are now heading to other locations after their primary destination was the Suez Canal.

She noted that four tankers were carrying cargoes from the US and Qatar, while the others were not carrying any cargo.

Shea also affirmed that six LNG carriers are waiting to enter both sides of the canal, but another ship called the Golar Tundra is stuck in the canal since Tuesday, adding: "The transit lines of a total of 16 LNG carriers designated to cross the Suez Canal will be affected if the blockage continues until the end of this week. There will be a significant delay in the loading schedule at Ras Laffan in early April."

This comes at a time when the charter company of the container ship stuck in the Egyptian Suez Canal revealed on Thursday that two professional rescue teams from the Netherlands and Japan will work with the local authorities to develop a more effective plan to float the grounded vessel.

Taiwanese company Evergreen also mentioned that the ship's owner had appointed two companies, SMIT Salvage from the Netherlands and Nippon Salvage Co. from Japan, and that the hired rescue teams will work alongside the ship's captain and the Suez Canal Authority (SCA).

The ship is now preventing two-way navigation in one of the world's busiest shipping routes for goods, oil, cereals and other products, linking Asia and Europe.

READ: Suez Canal: A vital global waterway

The Suez Canal is a 193-kilometre-long man-made waterway that connects the Red Sea to the Mediterranean, linking trade between Asia and East Africa on the one hand, and Europe, the Americas and West Africa on the other.

As for alternative routes to the Suez Canal, there are only two alternative sea routes, namely the Cape of Good Hope route and the Arctic route.

A third route crosses the Pacific Ocean but is much longer and only practical for trade between the Western Americas and East Asia. Therefore, it does not compete with the Suez Canal.

There could be combined land and sea transport routes, such as carrying the goods transported by sea to the ports and transporting it by land to other ports to be shipped back by sea. However, this is an expensive option.

The dilemma is that the closest route that combines land and sea transport also passes through Egypt, like the Suez Canal, where goods can be unloaded at the ports of Damietta or Port Said and transported by land to Suez and vice versa, to be shipped again by sea to various destinations.

Meanwhile, the SCA disclosed on Thursday that it had temporarily suspended navigation movement in the Suez Canal, amid ongoing efforts over the past three days to float a 400-metre-long container ship that had run aground, disrupting traffic in the canal. Eight tugboats are currently working to adjust the vessel's position.

READ: Turkey ready to help dislodge ship in Suez Canal, minister says

The SCA indicated in a statement that the ship Ever Given ran aground on the morning of 23 March: "Mainly due to the lack of visibility resulting from bad weather conditions caused by a dust storm, which caused a loss of the ability to steer the ship and subsequently a blockage."

The statement explained: "The ongoing rescue operations are being carried out by the authority's Movement Department and using eight tugboats, including the Barakah 1 locomotive with a pulling force of 160 tonnes. The ship is being pushed from both sides and the ballast water load is being reduced to float the ship and allow navigation in the canal."

The statement added that 13 ships from Port Said, as part of the northern convoy, crossed the canal on Wednesday as scheduled. However, as the work of floating the vessel continues, it is necessary to proceed with the alternative scenario by waiting in the Great Bitter Lake area until the complete resumption of navigation traffic.

Peter Berdowski, managing director of the Dutch company Boskalis trying to float the ship, predicted that it was too early to say how long the mission could take. Berdowski told a Dutch television programme: "We cannot preclude the fact that the operation could take weeks depending on the situation," noting that the ship's bow and stern were lifted on both sides of the canal.

He added: "It is a significant weight lying on the sand. We may have to combine (in our mission) weight reduction by moving containers, oil, and water from the ship, in addition to using tugboats and shovelling the sand."

Dozens of ships are congregating at both ends of the canal, including other large containers, tankers and oil and cereal carriers, causing one of the worst cargo traffic jam incidents in years.

Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement (BSM), responsible for the Ever Given's technical management, said bulldozers are working to remove sand and mud from around the ship to make it float, while tugboats are handling the cranes on the ship to help move it.

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