Accompanied by a blaring horn and cries of “God is great”, in the early hours of Monday morning, it finally budged.
An Egyptian and international salvaging team has succeeded in partially freeing a vast container ship that had become stuck on the banks of the Suez canal for six days, holding up tens of billions of dollars’ worth of global trade.
But engineers warned the blockage was not yet cleared, with the ship’s bulbous bow – or front end – still stuck at the canal’s edge and salvagers contemplating removing containers from the vessel to lighten its load, a process that is likely to take at least days.
“Don’t cheer too soon,” Peter Berdowski, CEO of Boskalis, the salvage firm hired to extract the Ever Given, told Dutch NPO Radio 1. “The good news is that the stern is free but we saw that as the simplest part of the job.”
The toughest challenge remained at the front of the ship, he added, noting it was still “stuck rock-solid” and that workers would struggle to haul the fully laden 220,000-ton vessel over the clay of the canal bank.
If that did not succeed, Berdowski said, cranes would be required to lift containers from bow and place them on smaller ships docked alongside the Ever Given, further extending the timeline of the operation.
Powerful tugboats will make another attempt to pull the vessel’s front-end free of the banks on Monday afternoon, with experts speculating that if they are unable to do so salvagers may wait until mid-week when tides will be higher.
Dredgers, excavators and tugboats worked throughout the weekend fighting changing wind conditions and the tide to dislodge thousands of cubic metres of dense sand caked around the 400-metre-long mega-ship Ever Given, managing in the early hours of Monday to rotate the vessel and free its stern.
Footage posted online at about 9am local time showed the stern of the colossal vessel straightened and floating in the waterway, a marked contrast to the diagonally wedged ship whose nearly week-long predicament has raised oil and freight prices and may lead to weeks of delays at ports around the world.
The Japanese-owned Ever Given was successfully refloated at 4.30am local time (0230 GMT), said Inchcape, a global provider of marine services.
The partial success of the salvaging mission followed 48 hours of highs and lows, with the freeing of the ship’s rudder on Friday night raising hopes the end was in sight, until rising tides undid the work. By Sunday, the Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, was talking of the need to lighten the ship, a delicate and time-consuming process that is considered one of the worst-case scenarios.
All the while, an Egyptian team working with Japanese and Dutch consultants dredged, dug and pulled around the clock, hoping to take advantage of a high spring tide on Sunday night that provided their best chance to refloat the container ship.
Osama Rabei, the head of the Suez Canal Authority, confirmed that the vessel had been partially refloated after responding successfully to “pull-and-push manoeuvres”. He said that workers had straightened the vessel’s position by 80% and that the stern had moved 102 metres (334ft) from the canal bank.
Overnight, several dredgers had toiled to vacuum up 27,000 cubic metres of sand and mud around the ship. Another powerful tugboat, Carlo Magno, arrived at the scene to join the work on Monday, and the tugs would focus their efforts on the front of the ship, said Berdowski.
Although the vessel is vulnerable to damage in its current position, Shoei Kisen Kaisha, the Japanese company that owns the Ever Given, dismissed concerns on Monday, saying that the ship’s engine was functional and it could pursue its trip normally when freed. It wasn’t clear whether the Panama-flagged, hauling goods from Asia to Europe, would head to its original destination of Rotterdam or if it will need to enter another port for repairs.
A canal official, who requested anonymity, said that the team on the ground had started technical checks, and were reassured that the ship’s motor was working.
Ship tracking websites early on Monday morning showed that the ship had moved from its position lodged between the banks, with the bow pointing northwards away from the east bank.
Leth Agencies, which provides services to shipping using the canal, said early on Monday that the breakthrough came after intensive efforts to push and pull the ship with 10 tugboats.
The salvage effort also included dredging thousands of tonnes of sand from the banks and bed of the canal.
Crude oil prices fell after news the ship had been partially refloated, with Brent crude down by $1.41 a barrel to $63.05.
According to Reuters, two sources at the SCA earlier said that a mass of rock had been found at the bow of the ship. That appeared to be confirmed by the focus late on Sunday on digging to remove the lining of the canal around the bow, which ploughed into the bank when the ship veered out of control.
Diggers had been working to remove parts of the canal’s bank and expand dredging close to the ship’s bow to a depth of 18 metres (59ft), the SCA said in a statement.
Suez Canal Authority chief Osama Rabie told an Egyptian news channel the ship had moved from side to side for the first time late on Saturday.
“It is a good sign,” he said, adding that 14 tugboats were deployed around the vessel and salvage crews were working round the clock.
The 400-metre-long (1,300ft) Ever Given became jammed diagonally across a southern section of the canal in high winds early on 23 March, halting traffic on the shortest shipping route between Europe and Asia.
At least 369 vessels are waiting to transit the canal, Rabie said, including dozens of container ships, bulk carriers, oil tankers and liquefied natural gas or liquefied petroleum gas vessels.
Many other ships have already been rerouted around South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope in order to circumvent the Suez blockage, although the 5,500-mile (9,000km) diversion takes seven to 10 days longer and adds a huge fuel bill to the trip between Asia and Europe.