Tugs and dredgers try to free megaship blocking Suez Canal
The Taiwan-run MV Ever Given container ship is lodged sideways and impeding all traffic across the Egypt's Suez Canal - Cnes2021, Distribution Airbus DS/AFP

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.

"Tug boats 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 ship.

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

But the vessel with 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 specter 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 vessel 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 passed through the canal on a container ship while researching her book about the industry "90 Percent of Everything".

She 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 drastically shortens travel between Asia and Europe.

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.

- Fears of weeks-long blockage -

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

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

"I have experience with several rescue operations of this kind and as the former chairman of the Suez Canal Authority, I know every centimetre of the canal," said Mamish, who oversaw the recent expansion of the waterway.

However, salvage experts had warned earlier on Thursday the shutdown could last days or even weeks.

Smit Salvage has in the past worked on the wrecks of Russian nuclear submarine Kursk and Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia.

Evergreen has asked Smit Salvage and Japanese company Nippon Salvage to put in place a "more effective plan" to refloat the ship.

Smit said it was deploying a team to the site to assess what it would take to dislodge the Panama-flagged vessel.

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.

© 2021 AFP