When you can’t shift a ship that’s stuck fast into the wall of a canal that’s vital to world trade, there’s only one thing to do: call the salvage guys.
The Ever Given container ship – a 200,000-ton behemoth – has been blocking what is arguably the world’s most important waterway, the Suez Canal, since Tuesday morning.
The struggle to dislodge it is now turning the world’s attention to the work of SMIT Salvage, a legendary Dutch firm whose employees parachute themselves from one ship wreckage to the next, saving vessels often during violent storms. The company is synonymous with some of the most daring naval salvages, including lifting a sunken Russian nuclear submarine in 2001, and removing fuel from inside the Costa Concordia cruise ship after it ran aground in Italy in 2012.
SMIT, a unit of Royal Boskalis Westminster NV, is one of the companies appointed by Ever Given’s owner to help move the vessel. The first job will be to work out exactly how entrenched in the wall the ship is, said Boskalis spokesman Martijn Schuttevaer.
"It will be critical to inspect the vessel and how deeply it is lodged in the embankment, ” Schuttevaer said. "The question is how solidly she has been grounded.”
The answer to that question will dictate what comes next. The salvors could have to find a way to lighten the vessel’s enormous weight so that it can be pulled to a less obstructive position. At the moment, it’s blocking the path of more than 100 vessels.
The canal handles something like 10% of seaborne trade, spanning everything from finished goods to oil, gas, and dry-bulk commodities. And those cargoes aren’t flowing while the Ever Given is stuck.
The process of making the ship lighter means removing things like the ballast water, which helps keep ships steady when they’re at sea. Fuel will probably have to be unloaded too, Schuttavaer said.
In a worst-case scenario, it could be that some of the carrier’s containers -- usually filled with everything from furniture to televisions -- may have to be taken off. How long that process lasts would depend on how much equipment is around to do the heavy lifting. It can often involve flying in helicopters to remove the crates one by one.
SMIT was due to fly an 8-person team in at dawn Thursday local time to board and inspect the vessel and the grounding. A big part of the initial underwater assessment is how much the banks slope at that point in the canal. Japan’s Nippon Salvage Co. has also been hired to assist in the re-floating, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Such teams are usually led by a salvage master, often a former captain or someone with knowledge of the industry, but can also include divers, welders and crane operators, according to Joseph Farrell III, director of business development at Resolve Marine, another company that offers salvage services. He declined to comment specifically on the Ever Given.
Pictures now seen across the globe of the vessel spread fully across the canal, point to the first major hurdle. It ran aground both at the front and at the back, almost perpendicular to the canal walls. That’s leaving very little room to simply tow it away from either end, SMIT says.
For now, the focus is on dredging around the vessel. The canal authority has dispatched two of its dredgers, the Mashor and the 10th of Ramadan, to remove sand from underwater before rescuers attempt to pull it. From the shore, excavators are also working around the vessel. Western shipping experts who analysed photos of the Ever Given calculated that her protruding bulb was as much as 5 meters buried into the canal wall.
Not everything in the grounding has been bad news. One thing that’s likely to make the process easier is that the ship has gotten itself stuck in sand, rather than rock. More malleable material around the Ever Given should make for a slightly smoother escape.
There are already tug boats around the ship working to help with its removal, but with such a giant vessel, bigger ones with more horsepower are usually needed. Crews are hoping that periods of higher tide over the next few days will be conducive to helping free the Ever Given.
Until then, the world’s commodity and maritime markets – and the world trade they serve – will be left hanging, waiting on the professionals to help shift a 200,000-ton ship.
"There’s only a few companies in the world that do what we do, ” said Farrell. "It’s a challenge, the container ships are always the biggest jobs.” – Report by Ann Koh and Alex Longley/Bloomberg