While the global shipping industry bleeds $400 million each hour the massive Ever Given container ship stays stuck in the sand of the Suez Canal, an elite salvage team on the ground in Egypt is facing an entirely different problem: How do you make a top-heavy ship stuck in shifting sands weigh less without capsizing it?
“They’ll need a full survey of the seabed and canal bottom to see what the extent of grounding is,” Nick Sloane, the salvage master who miraculously led the removal of the Costa Concordia cruise ship in 2014 off the island of Giglio, told The Daily Beast. “The worst case is that the ship is presently supported over her bow and stern areas, meaning possible sags in the middle.”
Those sags could lead to the ship splitting in two, spilling the fuel and cargo—which includes COVID-19 supplies like respirators and personal protection equipment made in China—into the canal, making it temporarily impassable. “The risk is that it could also become top-heavy and capsize,” Captain John Konrad, founder and CEO of the gCaptain shipping industry website, said. “And that would be catastrophic.”
But before anyone can even think of lightening the massive vessel—which is 1,312 feet long and 194 feet wide, with 50 feet of the ship below the water—they would need to download the schematics of the ship and run them through a series of computer-generated programs to determine what offloading will do to the balance. Then they would have to somehow get a maritime crane to Egypt since the country does not own one tall enough to reach the top of the Ever Given’s 20,000 containers.
The information used to determine how to lighten the 200,000 metric-ton ship enough to nudge it out of the sand, which buries the vessel a little more with each passing tide, will be largely based on the ship’s own records—assuming they are correct and were not fudged to pass what the Maritime Anti Corruption Network once called the most corrupt port system in the world.
Just how this monster ship, which is around the size of the Empire State Building, got stuck in the canal’s riprap or sandbanks is also up for debate. The ordeal has already become the subject of a number of memes and websites, with plenty of parody Twitter accounts churning out memes of the massive excavator, which, next to the ship, looks like a child's toy chipping away at the sand on the vessel’s bow.
The ship sails under a Panama flag, which is a common way to skirt human rights issues of great concern to its all-Indian crew, who are now unable to leave the vessel. It is owned by the Japanese company Shoei Kisen Kaisha, which has apologized profusely for the rather expensive inconvenience. They say heavy winds knocked the ship into the sandbanks, but data so far shows it was also traveling 13 knots in an 8-knot speed zone when the accident happened, according to Konrad.
Several salvors have also said the most likely cause was a blackout power outage that compromised steering just as the wind gust came up. Coincidentally, this same ship was involved in an accident in Hamburg in 2019, when its owners rammed into a ferry and destroyed it. They had blamed the accident on a loss of steering power and high winds back then, too.
Salvors say the next opportunity to move the ship will be during spring tides on Sunday and Monday. If that doesn’t work, it could take weeks to dig her out of the sand, all the while trying to keep her upright and intact.