The Dutch emergency response team hired to free the vast ship blocking the Suez canal has pulled off some dramatic recoveries, including lifting Russia’s Kursk nuclear submarine from the Barents Sea floor, but says this is one of the trickiest.
Weighing 200 000 tonnes without cargo, the Ever Given is the heaviest vessel that Smit Salvage, a subsidiary of the Dutch marine services company Boskalis contracted in the rescue, has faced in its nearly 180-year history.
With real-time emergency response crews across the globe, Smit Salvage has helped recover or salvage dozens of wrecks and free stranded cargo ships, ferries and tankers.
While lives are not at stake this time, the vast economic interests in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes make the urgency of the situation critical.
Boskalis chief executive Peter Berdowski, who has compared the operation to saving a beached whale, will need to come up with a plan that is acceptable to the ship owner, insurance companies, and the Egyptian, state-owned Suez Canal authority.
The Ever Given has grounded at both ends and initial attempts to shift it with tugs showed it would not budge easily from its position wedged diagonally across a narrow stretch of the canal.
“It is a difficult puzzle, because the ship is currently being strained by unnatural forces. We don’t want it to tip or tear in half during the salvage,” he said.
Experts are divided on how much of a help the narrow window of a spring tide in coming days will be in efforts to refloat the vessel, which can carry up to 20 000 containers.
Clemens Schapeler with global logistics platform Transporeon said: “I think the most likely outcome is that it will be refloated on Sunday or Monday. But the worst case (stuck for weeks) is a real possibility.”
The Suez Canal authority is mobilising dredging vessels to remove underwater sand or other material beneath the bow and stern ends. The hardness of that material and the ability to position the dredging vessels effectively will determine how quickly that operation goes.
A core team from the Netherlands boarded the ship on Thursday and collected initial readings and is calculating the best options.
Officials involved in the operation told Reuters the most obvious first step will be to remove large fuel and ballast to lighten the vessel, in combination with dredging away sand and to then attempt to pull it afloat.
If those initial measures fail and the ship remains stuck, it will need to have its cargo of several thousand shipping containers removed in a job that officials warned could take weeks.
In 2012, Smit and Italy’s Tito Neri removed bunker fuel from the cruise vessel Costa Concordia, which had been carrying over 4 000 passengers and crew when it hit a rock and encountered stability problems while passing Tuscany’s Isle of Giglio.
“Time is the deciding factor here. The ship itself is undamaged, but there is massive consequential damage from the blockade,” said Peter Berdowski, chief executive of Boskalis.
“The time factor has rarely weighed so heavily as it does now with the Ever Given,” he said.