CAIRO — An enormous container ship became stuck while traversing the Suez Canal late Tuesday, blocking traffic through one of the world’s most important shipping arteries and threatening to add one more burden to a global shipping industry already battered by the coronavirus pandemic.
The ship, which was heading from China to the port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands, ran aground amid poor visibility and high winds from a sandstorm that struck much of northern Egypt this week, according to George Safwat, a spokesman for the authority that oversees the canal. The storm caused an “inability to direct the ship,” he said in a statement.
By Wednesday morning, more than 100 ships were stuck at each end of the canal, which connects the Red Sea to the Mediterranean and carries roughly 10 percent of worldwide shipping traffic.
The Suez Canal Authority said on Wednesday afternoon that the stricken vessel, the Ever Given, had been “partially refloated,” according to the website of GAC, a shipping agent that works at the canal. It said crews were working to push the ship along one bank of the canal.
That will allow ships to move again as soon as the Ever Given is towed away, GAC said, but it cautioned in an email that there was “up to this moment no progress” on clearing the canal. It was unclear how long that operation might take.
Dozens of tugboats had raced to try to wrench the ship free as crews on land brought heavy equipment to dig it out from the canal’s eastern embankment, where its bow sat wedged. High winds continued to sweep the area on Wednesday. That, along with the sheer size of the ship — which is almost a quarter of a mile long, dwarfing the tugboats and bulldozers deployed to save it — complicated the task, according to GAC.
Lt. General Osama Rabie, the head of the canal authority, said that the authority was relying on an older section of the canal to help ease the traffic jam in the waterway.
Nearly every vessel traveling from Asia to Europe passes through the 120-mile channel. The Suez is also a corridor for some ships carrying cargo from Asia to the East Coast of the United States, as well as a pathway from North Africa to the rest of the world. Only the Panama Canal looms as large in the passage of goods around the globe.
“The Suez Canal will not spare any efforts to restore navigation and to serve the movement of global trade,” General Rabie said in a statement, adding that rescue units and eight tugboats were trying to refloat the stuck vessel on Wednesday morning.
If the authorities in Egypt are able to free the Ever Given from the channel and move it to the side of the waterway within two to three days, the episode will be a minor inconvenience to the industry. Shipping companies generally build in extra days to their schedules to account for delays en route.
But if the ship’s extraction proves more complex, leaving the Suez blocked for longer, that could pose a substantial risk for an industry that is already overwhelmed. Global maritime trade has taken a hit over the last year because of the pandemic, pushing Egypt’s revenues from the canal down 3 percent to $5.61 billion in 2020.
“If that’s going to be a knock-on delay, then you’ll see piling up and bunching up of ships on their arrival in Europe as well,” said Akhil Nair, vice president of global carrier management at SEKO Logistics in Hong Kong. “It’s just one more factor that we didn’t need.”
Pictures from the canal showed the container-laden ship sitting sideways at such an angle that the name of the company that operates it, Evergreen, is clearly readable from the ship behind it. Its bow appeared to be lodged in the canal’s rocky eastern bank.
She described rescue efforts and an excavator digging out the Ever Given’s bow. “But from the looks of it that ship is super stuck,” she wrote. “They had a bunch of tugs trying to pull and push it earlier but it was going nowhere.”
The last container ship to run aground in the Suez Canal was the OOCL Japan, which became stuck there in October 2017 and again in June 2018 after steering malfunctions. Although tugboats managed to pull it away quickly both times, the ship took a chunk of the parallel road with it the second time, causing a passing car to fall into the gap.
Rescue operations for larger ships can be much more complicated. If the tugboats are unable drag the ship out, the salvage crew may need to lighten the ship by removing containers, pumping out the water tanks that serve as its ballast and even dredging around the bow and stern, said Capt. John Konrad, the editor and founder of gcaptain.com, a shipping news website.
The Suez Canal is a key artery for oil flows from the Persian Gulf region to Europe and North America. Roughly 5 percent of globally traded crude oil and 10 percent of refined petroleum products passed through the canal before the pandemic, estimated David Fyfe, chief economist at Argus Media, a market research firm.
After the canal was snarled, there was a 2.85 percent jump in the price of Brent crude, the international benchmark, on Wednesday to $62.52 a barrel.
But Mr. Fyfe said that because the demand for oil remained relatively weak amid the pandemic, a short-term outage was unlikely to have a lasting effect on the market.
“I don’t think this is going to fundamentally change market sentiment,” he said. “A lot will depend on how quickly they can get the vessel cleared.”
Vivian Yee reported from Cairo, and Peter S. Goodman from London. Nada Rashwan contributed reporting from Cairo, Stanley Reed from London and Alexandra Stevenson from Hong Kong.