Stuck from stem to stern: The 144-hour scramble to pry loose the Ever Given
By Sudarsan Raghavan, Siobhán O'Grady and Steve Hendrix
Ismailia: In the predawn dark, Magdy Gamal sat in the bridge of the Mosaed 2 and stared up at an iron wall of futility. So far, nothing in six frantic, hazardous days of effort had budged the massive bulk of the Ever Given, 200,000 tonnes of steel and consumer goods blocking the fourth-busiest shipping lane in the world.
Day after day, the unmoving mass had loomed over a swarm of machinery and humans – excavators, dredgers, tugboats – that dug and pushed and pulled to no avail. With the engines and cables of the Mosaed 2 and the other tugs straining to the breaking point, every attempt to loosen gravity’s grip on that hull had failed with each tide that deserted them, the waters receding in their unrelenting cycle.
The Ever Given, seen at the Suez Canal on March 28, 2021. Credit:Getty
“The tide is like a ghost we are trying to face,” said Gamal, 30.
Now they were down to their last, best chance. On Monday, the sun and moon were aligned to pull Earth’s waters in the same direction, producing a “king tide,” one of the highest of the year. If the efforts failed again, the Egyptian government was ready to begin the colossal chore of offloading the Ever Given’s 18,000 cargo containers one by one.
Global commerce was backing up by the hour at either end of the blocked Suez Canal. Economic and political pressure was building to free the ship. The world, distracting itself from a year of the pandemic, was watching.
All this made for even greater danger. Mariners know that haste and heavy seagoing machinery are a deadly combination. They call the area around straining tow cables the “snapback” zone, where breaking lines have been known to sever arms and crush skulls.
Surrounding Gamal were at least 10 other tugs and 100 crew members. Egypt’s image was at stake. He said a prayer and put his hand on the throttle.
Above: An animation shows tugboats trying to manoeuvre the ship out of the canal wall.Credit:Vessel Finder
It was nearly a week earlier, shortly before sunrise on March 23, that a convoy of 20 ships had entered the canal at its southern gateway, beside the Egyptian city of Suez.
Fifth in the line, fitted with the 3 million-candlepower spotlight that all canal-crossing ships are required to mount on their bows, was the 1,300-foot Ever Given, about halfway through its run from Malaysia to Rotterdam. Stacked 10 high and 23 across above its hull were metal shipping containers, each the size of a one-car garage and stuffed with goods, including Ikea furniture.
The usual trip up the Suez Canal amounts to about a dozen uneventful hours along 193 placid kilometres. Crew members can stare east at Asia or west at Africa or north at the freighter ahead of them taking the same narrow shortcut between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea.
For officers, navigating the canal’s skinny channel is more nerve-racking, like cycling on a plank. “You don’t have any room for error,” said Joe Reynolds, 55, a chief engineer who has transited the canal dozens of times. His container ship arrived not long after the Ever Given for a crossing that would be like no other.
At 7.08am, with the sun an hour above the desert horizon, the Ever Given moved into one of the canal’s one-lane arteries and approached a bend to the right. Satellite data shows the ship started to weave from bank to bank at more than 24 kilometres an hour, much faster than the canal’s speed limit of less than 16 kilometres an hour.
What was happening on the Ever Given’s bridge, where the captain and two certified Suez Canal pilots were on duty, remains a mystery. But some maritime and canal officials have noted that a wind of up to 35 km/h was blowing from the south, pressing against the wall of containers.
For more than half an hour, the ship veered from side to side, according to the satellite tracking, narrowly missing the banks until its stern seemed to brush the left-hand shore. The bow instantly sheered sharply to the right, and 200,000 tonnes of ship plowed into the sandy eastern bank of the canal at 20 km/h.
It was 7.44am, and the Ever Given was lodged stem to stern.
The ships behind it slowed their engines, then stopped. Julianne Cona, an engineer on one of them, the Maersk Denver, took a moment from securing her own massive vessel to post an Instagram picture of the ship now sitting athwart the Suez Canal.
“Looks like we might be here for a little bit,” she wrote.
The ships trailing the Ever Given in the northbound convoy dropped anchor midstream. Some 30 southbound vessels that had already entered from the Mediterranean, meanwhile, gathered in the Great Bitter Lake area, one of the few wide spots in the canal. An additional 34 ships were already backed up waiting to enter the canal at its northern entrance at Port Said.
The Ever Given was lodged in a narrow stretch of the canal, not one of the sections Egypt had widened in 2015 as part of a $11 billion expansion to accommodate larger ships and allow for two-way traffic. Not even small craft could manoeuvrer around the stranded vessel, hampering efforts to deploy salvage boats, much less larger freighters.
Satellite images showed ships lined up behind the Ever Given while it was blocked. Credit: AP
Soon after the grounding, two of the waterway’s first responders, the Mosaed 2 and the Ezzat Adel tugboats, arrived at the scene. Egypt’s Suez Canal Authority maintains a fleet of 31 tugs, but in the past, two had been plenty to dislodge stuck ships. Only one tug had been needed to pull an oil tanker free in a 1990s mishap, according to a senior canal pilot. Officials were hopeful this blockage would be quickly cleared.
Members of the Ever Given’s crew of 25 Indian sailors lowered ropes from the stern, one for each tug, and the tug crews attached their heavier cables. The ship’s crew winched up the cables and secured them, ready to be pulled off the bank. But weather and gravity were against them. The winds were still as high. The sand and mud kept a grip on the hull. They needed more power.
“The weather was very difficult on this day,” recalled Badr Ramadan, a senior crew member whose tugboat, the Baraka 1, arrived at the scene shortly after midday as part of the escalating rescue effort. “This kind of weather we have seen before, and usually things work out.”
Now, with more tugs and the tide coming in, they tried a second time. Again, nothing. The water began to ebb and, along with it, hopes for a quick recovery.
As the tide went out, captains of the tug boats gave up hope of a quick rescue.
Outside the canal, the backup was rapidly swelling and within days it would grow to about 350 idled vessels. Aboard freighters still at a distance, shipmasters puzzled over how to plot their routes. Suddenly, the world’s shipping was back in the 19th century.
Before the Suez Canal was carved in the 1860s, a sea journey from Asia to Europe meant rounding the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa. Today, that detour adds two weeks or more, tons of fuel and tens of thousands of dollars to the cost of a trip.
With some salvage experts predicting it could take weeks to refloat the Ever Given, the finger-pointing began, and debates over who was responsible for the mounting costs spiked along with speculation over what caused the accident – winds or poor visibility, human or technical error.
Within the complex ownership and management of the Ever Given – owned by a Japanese holding company, leased by a Taiwanese conglomerate, sailed by German operators and registered in Panama – the parties seemed to shift responsibility. The Taiwanese company, Evergreen, released statements urging the owners to investigate the incident and pointing out that maritime law singles out owners for liability.
For the canal’s mariners, the ship’s unusually high speed seemed especially suspect.
“It may have been one of the factors that caused it to ground,” said Ramadan, the senior crew member. “Sometimes, when there are high wind speeds, you need to go at a faster speed to manoeuvrer the ship properly.”
The containers were stacked 10-high on the deck. Credit:AP
By the second day, canal officials had dispatched dredgers, the floating road crews of the waterway, keeping the channel deep and wide enough for ships to pass.
It was not until 8pm that day, after picking their way through all the waiting ships, that the first two dredgers arrived. Al Ashir (“The 10th of Ramadan”) is the smallest of the canal’s fleet of 10 dredgers, and the Mashhour is the biggest, a 31,000-horsepower underwater vacuum. A team of divers also reached the scene to survey the bottom. If the tugs could not pull the Ever Given from the sand, the dredgers would take the sand from beneath it.
That day, more reinforcements arrived: a team of specialists from Smit, a Dutch salvage company that had been called by the ship’s Japanese owners.
But crucially, two heavy seagoing tugs contracted by Smit – behemoths capable of enormous towing power – were still two days away to the south. The position of the Ever Given meant it would not be possible to dispatch heavy tugs that might be closer but were north of the canal; they would have to enter from the Red Sea to access the ship’s stern. “Supply from the Mediterranean was impossible,” a Smit spokesman told a Dutch newspaper. “We had to start with the butt.”
A backhoe tries to dig out the keel of the Ever Given.Credit:AP
The Egyptian dredges continued to burrow without pause, soon receiving help from excavators working from the shore. After another day of digging, which had removed thousands of tonnes of sand, the ship’s rudder was largely exposed. But high tides came and went and the Ever Given remained locked to the shore.
Residents in villages alongside the canal watched the growing rescue operation with amazement. The biggest vessel they had ever seen was towering above their houses and farmlands.
“No ships have ever gotten stuck here in my lifetime,” said Hassan, a 49-year-old truck driver who lives in Manshiyet Rugola, a tiny hamlet directly beside the Ever Given’s massive hull. “It’s just fate.”
Villagers watched the rescue operation in amazement. Credit:AP Photo/Mohamed Elshahed
Aboard the other ships languishing at the canal, there was nothing to do but wait. The crews worked their shifts, streamed movies, fixated on the electronic charts that showed the position of the grounded ship. Egyptian agriculture officials said they had supplied more than 300 tonnes of feed for more than 60,000 sheep and 420 cows en route to Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
“Every morning I’d get up and go look and ask the officer on watch, ‘Has it moved?’ And every morning it was ‘No,’ ” said Reynolds, who could see the Ever Given rising over the desert about 16 kilometres away.
By Saturday, the ship had attracted a harbor yard of its own. At least 14 tugs were on hand. Small boats ferried equipment, food and crew members. There were diving teams and maintenance crews, more than 200 people on the water working round-the-clock, according to interviews with the salvage teams.
The pressure to liberate the vessels was immense when a group of canal officials and Dutch salvage experts mounted the Ever Given’s gangway and gathered with the ship’s officers and crew.
The super-tugs were nearing the canal. The highest tides of the year were about to add precious lifting power.
They all looked to Monday.
The giant tug boats arrived in time for Monday’s high tide. Credit:AP
The first big tug to coast up, Sunday night, was the 3,700-ton Rotterdam-based Alp Guard. “That is the Godzilla of tugboats,” said Gregory Tylawsky, a licensed shipmaster and founder of the Maritime Expert Group.
By 3am Monday, the burrowing was focused on the Ever Given’s bow. A specialised dredger capable of removing 2000 cubic metres of sand an hour was chewing away at the bank.
The Alp Guard and nine other tugs took up positions at four locations around the hull. The full moon and work lights reflected in the black water – the slowly rising black water that was beginning to change direction with the turning tide. On his bridge, Gamal said his prayer.
Eslam Negm, 32, watched from the deck of the Baraka 1 tugboat and thought of the all the Internet memes about the marooned ship. The world had been laughing at Egypt. “No one was able to see how much pressure we were under,” he said.
They were exhausted, now accustomed to failure but still determined. And they watched closely as the operation commenced.
Every engine roared, the Alp Guard deeper than any.
And suddenly, they thought they felt movement. Slowly, but yes, the Ever Given’s stern seemed to be creeping toward the deeper water. By 5am, they were sure.
“We had every faith in God and ourselves that our efforts would not go to waste,” Gamal said.
But the bow was still sitting on the Egyptian sand.
Shortly before dawn, the second big tug, the Italian Carlo Magno, with a crew of 13, pulled in from the south, newly arrived from the United Arab Emirates.
“I saw a mountain askew of the channel,” Captain Gabriele De Cesaris said of the surreal scene. “We’d already seen it from the news online, but in person it was something that cannot be described.”
The Carlo Magno attached a cable and added its power for the final tugboat ballet that followed. Some boats pushed, others pulled. Over the next long hours, the flotilla moved to apply pressure carefully, working the hull without cracking it, dodging the never-resting dredgers.
At 2.45pm, with the tide seeping away, the tugs appeared to stop operations, leaving some crew members to fear they had failed again. But half an hour later, they engaged their propellers for another great heave.
Then, De Cesaris recalled: “there was no noise. We could only sense the reaction of our propellers’ engines that were pushing and realised the speed was changing. Instead of standing still, we were moving forward.”
It was free. It was over.
“We all had goose bumps,” said Mahmoud Shalaby, aboard Baraka 1. “We forgot about all our troubles.”
Tug horns honked. Sailors hugged. The crews cheered.
And then they posted videos of their cheering so a world that had remained fixated for six days could share in their rejoicing.
The Washington Post
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