By Yusri Mohamed, Gavin Maguire and Florence Tan
ISMAILIA, Egypt (Reuters) – A container ship blocking the Suez Canal like a “beached whale” sent new shockwaves through global trade on Thursday as officials stopped all ships entering the channel and the salvage company said it may take weeks to free.
The 400 m (430 yard) Ever Given, almost as long as the Empire State Building is high, is blocking transit in both directions through one of the world’s busiest shipping channels for oil and grain and other trade linking Asia and Europe.
The Suez Canal Authority (SCA) said eight tugs were working to move the vessel, which got stuck diagonally across the single-lane southern stretch of the canal on Tuesday morning amid high winds and a dust storm.
“We can’t exclude it might take weeks, depending on the situation,” Peter Berdowski, CEO of Dutch company Boskalis which is trying to free the ship, told the Dutch television programme “Nieuwsuur”.
Several dozen vessels, including other large container ships, tankers carrying oil and gas, and bulk vessels hauling grain have backed up at either end of the canal to create one of the worst shipping jams seen for years.
The SCA, which had allowed some vessels to enter the canal in the hope the blockage could be cleared, said it had temporarily suspended all traffic on Thursday.
Thirteen vessels that sailed south from Port Said in a convoy on Wednesday had dropped anchor in the Bitter Lakes waiting area until navigation could be resumed, it said.
Berdowski said the ship’s bow and stern had been lifted up against either side of the canal.
“It is like an enormous beached whale. It’s an enormous weight on the sand. We might have to work with a combination of reducing the weight by removing containers, oil and water from the ship, tug boats and dredging of sand.”
Roughly 30% of the world’s shipping container volume transits through the 193 km (120 miles) Suez Canal daily, and about 12% of total global trade of all goods.
Shipping experts say that if the blockage is unlikely to be cleared in the coming days, some shipping firms may re-route vessels around the southern tip of Africa, which would add roughly a week to the journey.
Consultancy Wood Mackenzie said the biggest impact was on container shipping, but there were also a total of 16 laden crude and product oil tankers due to sail through the canal and now delayed by the incident.
The load of the tankers amounted to 870,000 tonnes of crude and 670,000 tonnes of clean oil products such as gasoline, naphtha and diesel, it said.
According to oil analytics firm Vortexa, Russia and Saudi Arabia are the top two exporters of oil through the canal, while India and China are the main importers.
Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement (BSM), the technical manager of Ever Given, said dredgers were working to clear sand and mud from around the blocked vessel while tugboats in conjunction with Ever Given’s winches work to shift it.
Marine services firm GAC issued a note to clients overnight saying efforts to free the vessel using tug boats continued, but that wind conditions and the sheer size of the vessel “were hindering the operation”.
Japanese shipowner Shoei Kisen apologised for the incident and said work on freeing the ship, which was heading to Europe from China, “has been extremely difficult” and it was not clear when the vessel would float again.
The ship’s GPS signal shows only minor changes to its position over the past 24 hours.
(Reporting by Yusri Mohamed in Isamilia, Gavin Maguire and Florence Tan in Singapore; additional reporting by Bart Meijer in Amsterdam and Yuka Obayashi in Tokyo; editing by Robert Birsel, Aidan Lewis and Philippa Fletcher)