What happens when the Suez Canal is blocked?
With Ever Given still blocking the Suez Canal Nicola Pryce-Roberts looks at the salvage operation, impact on trade and ramifications for the industry
With Ever Given still blocking the Suez Canal, one of the world’s busiest waterways has come to a standstill. Hundreds of vessels are anchored up unable to continue their voyage as salvage work continues to re-float the large container ship and clear one of the main arteries of world shipping. Nicola Pryce-Roberts, Senior Lecturer in Maritime Business and Law, looks at the salvage operation, the impact on trade and what needs to be done to support the industry.
"It isn’t such an unusual thing for a ship to run aground on a sandbank, unfortunate, regrettable, a very bad day at work for the navigators perhaps, but when it happens in the one of the main arteries of world shipping it is a very newsworthy event.
"To get an understanding of the impact of blocking the Suez Canal is, we need only look at some basic statistics - an average of just over 51 ships passed through the Canal every day in 2020. Or to look at it another way the Suez Canal handles 12% of global trade each year.
"The exact cause of the vessel running hard aground will not be known until a formal investigation looks at what led to the casualty. It is, however, likely that it may not be one single factor rather a chain of events.
"From the images available, taken locally and satellite images, she appears to be well embedded in the bank. Freeing her will require a combination of excavating sand beneath her hull and significant tug power.
"A similarly sized vessel, the CSCL Indian Ocean, ran hard aground on a sandbank in the River Elbe, Germany in February 2016. She was successfully re-floated six days later, after excavation on sand beneath her hull, a high spring tide and the assistance of 12 tugs with a combined bollard pull of over 1,000 tons.
"The salvage company that carried out that re-floating, Smit Salvage of the Netherlands, are also assisting the Suez Canal Authority with the Ever Given using similar techniques. The re-float may take a few days, particularly if sand excavation plant and tugs need to be re-positioned to assist the operation. It is worth noting that the high spring tide, which will assist salvors achieve their aim, is at the weekend.
Disruption to Trade
"There were not as many merchant ships trading when the Suez Canal was closed in the past, nor were they as large or supply chains as sophisticated as they are in the 21st Century, however closure of the Canal in the past resulted in substantial disruption. It would therefore be incorrect to assume that this closure, however short, is not without significant impact. Port congestion along with delayed arrival of goods of all kinds will disrupt the global supply chain impacting all types of trades.
"There are already a significant number of vessels in the area waiting to move through the Suez Canal southbound and northbound. Data suggests that at midday today (25 March) about 200 vessels are waiting at anchor to move through the canal.
"The waiting vessels are a mix of tankers carrying oil and gas, bulk carriers carrying dry bulk cargos, car carriers and container vessels with their diverse range of traded goods. The waiting vessels will, in turn, be joined by vessels already in transit. This will mean that when the Canal is fully open again a convoy of vessels are likely to arrive at their destination ports at the same time, resulting in port congestion. When they finally arrive at their destination, these vessels will be made to wait their turn at anchor to load or discharge their cargos.
"Some owners will be weighing up the cost of re-routing their vessels around the Cape of Good Hope. This longer and more expensive voyage will incur costs for the vessel owner that will not have been calculated when negotiating contracts of carriage.
"Delays may also result in vessels not meeting agreed contractual deadlines. Charterers may exercise their option to cancel charter parties. Insurers too will be bracing themselves for claims - there is no loss of life or pollution, but this will be a significant casualty for the insurance industry to bear.
"Major canals, Suez and Panama, are vital lifelines on busy trading routes and we all rely on the dedicated maritime professionals working for them and using them to keep them clear, keep goods moving and facilitate global trade.
"Shipping is safer than at any time in history, but it is impossible to ensure that zero incidents occur at sea, casualty causes are complex and varied. Shipping relies on the services and experience of professional ship salvors, companies who have invested significant capital in specialised equipment and personnel so that they can quickly respond to maritime casualties when they occur.
In the future?
"Questions will no doubt be asked about the safety of Ultra Large Container Ship operation. Although bigger and more unwieldly to navigate, in theory, they are no more risky than smaller vessels. A vessel half the length of the Ever Given may just as easily have blocked the Suez Canal.
"If, however, it is discovered that the sheer size of the Ever Given and her container stacks were a contributing factor to the casualty we may be forced to reconsider the theory. ULCS usually trade in the background of our lives carrying the goods we each use every day. It is the size and number of containers carried onboard, in excess of 20,000 20-foot containers, which makes an ULCS economically attractive to their owners and any salvage operation involving an ULCS challenging.
"When an incident occurs at sea involving an ULCS specialist floating cranes may be needed to remove containers, and consideration given to where those containers will be stored. These vessels are 400m in length, so when they run aground in narrow channels or rivers they can, as we see with the Ever Given, be a substantial obstacle to navigation.
"It is important then that we maintain a sustainable salvage capability to deal with any future ULCS incidents. We do so by financially encouraging those salvage companies who offer these vital services when we need them. We all have a stake in this; we all benefit from the economies of scale ULCS bring in keeping the cost of moving goods around the globe low."
Nicola Pryce Roberts
Prior to lecturing at Solent University, Nicola worked as a lawyer and before that in a number of operational and managerial roles for A.P. Moller/Maersk Line and Hamburg Süd. Her research interests include ship salvage, commercial law and practice, international maritime law and the law of the sea.