2 tugboats deploy to Egypt’s Suez Canal as shippers avoid it

Satellite image shows cargo ship MV Ever Given stuck in the Suez Canal near Suez, Egypt

SUEZ, Egypt (AP) — Two additional tugboats deployed Sunday to Egypt’s Suez Canal to aid efforts to free a skyscraper-sized container ship wedged for days across the crucial waterway, even as major shippers increasingly divert their boats out of fear the vessel may take even longer to free.

The MV Ever Given, a Panama-flagged, Japanese-owned ship that carries cargo between Asia and Europe, got stuck Tuesday in a single-lane stretch of the canal. In the time since, authorities have been unable to unstick the vessel and traffic through the canal — valued at over $9 billion a day — has been halted, further disrupting a global shipping network already strained by the coronavirus pandemic.

The Dutch-flagged Alp Guard, a specialist tugboat, arrived at the location Sunday, according to the stuck ship’s technical management company, Bernard Schulte Ship Management. The Italian-flagged tugboat Carlo Magno was also close, having reached the Red Sea near the city of Suez early Sunday, satellite data from MarineTraffic.com showed.

The tugboats, along with at least 10 others already there, will be used to nudge the 400-meter-long (quarter-mile-long) Ever Given as dredgers continue to vacuum up sand from underneath the vessel and mud caked to its port side, Bernhard Schulte said.

Excavators dug Sunday on the eastern wall of the Suez Canal, hoping to free the bulbous bow of the Ever Given that plowed into the embankment, satellite photos showed. Bernard Schulte said the team was also waiting for the arrival of additional equipment to dredge the canal’s seafloor. The THSD Causeway, a dredger registered in Cyprus, was expected to arrive by Tuesday.

Authorities canceled Sunday’s planned freeing attempts “until sufficient tug power is in place,” said canal services firm Leth Agencies. They plan to conduct an effort to free the vessel Monday to coincide with high tides, it said.

Officials have been desperately trying to avoid unloading the vessel, which likely would add even more days to the canal’s closure. Taking containers off the ship would require a crane and other equipment that have yet to arrive.

On Saturday, the head of the Suez Canal Authority told journalists that strong winds were “not the only cause” for the Ever Given running aground, appearing to push back against conflicting assessments offered by others. Lt. Gen. Osama Rabei said an investigation was ongoing but did not rule out human or technical error.

Bernhard Schulte Ship Management maintains that their “initial investigations rule out any mechanical or engine failure as a cause of the grounding.” However, at least one initial report suggested a “blackout” struck the hulking vessel carrying some 20,000 containers at the time of the incident.

Rabei said he remained hopeful that dredging could free the ship without having to resort to removing its cargo, but added that “we are in a difficult situation, it’s a bad incident.”

Asked about when they expected to free the vessel and reopen the canal, he said: “I can’t say because I do not know.”

Speaking on Sunday to the pro-government Egyptian television channel Extra News, Rabei said Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi had ordered the canal authority to prepare for all options, including taking containers off the vessel. He said officials had been in talks with the U.S. about that possibility, without elaborating.