The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Giant ship blocking Suez Canal is freed; incident on key trade route cost the global economy billions of dollars

An international effort helped free the giant cargo carrier, Ever Given, on March 29 after the vessel ran aground and blocked the Suez Canal five days earlier. (Video: The Washington Post)

ISMAILIA, Egypt — The mammoth cargo carrier blocking the Suez Canal was finally freed on Monday afternoon, nearly a week after it wedged sideways, blocking a key waterway and causing billions of dollars worth of damage to global trade.

Ship tracking data showed the Ever Given heading north at a speed that soon reached 7.5 knots, the equivalent of roughly 8.5 miles per hour. Nearby vessels blared their horns in celebration.

"We pulled it off!" Dutch salvage company Boskalis, which had been hired by the ship's owner to assist with the high-stakes operation, said in a news release.

The victory followed a tense six days as the flow of goods between Europe and the Middle East and China in the crucial waterway came to a standstill, with the pressure on Egypt growing each day as the costs of the delay mounted.

Dredgers, tugboats and salvage crews worked frantically overnight on Sunday and had succeeded at freeing the boat’s stern by Monday morning, aided by the unusually high spring tide that arrived with the full moon.

At that point, Egyptian officials declared the operation a success. Lt. Gen. Osama Rabie, chief of the Suez Canal Authority, commended workers for achieving this “heroic feat” and performing “their patriotic duty impeccably.”

While the head of the Dutch salvage team warned that dislodging the boat’s bow could be far more complicated, a sense of optimism began to creep in, and Bloomberg News reported that one car carrier that had detoured away from the Suez Canal had taken another U-turn and was headed back for Egypt.

How did a ship get stuck in the Suez Canal?

“Egyptians have succeeded today in ending the crisis of the stranded ship in the Suez Canal,” Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi said in a statement.

He portrayed the efforts as a patriotic victory that assured the world that Egypt could be trusted with overseeing the 13 percent of all global trade that passes through the crucial waterway.

Later on Monday, it became clear that there was in fact reason to celebrate: Tugboats successfully reoriented the ship and pulled it into the center of the canal, then began towing it to the Bitter Lakes to the north, where it will be able to undergo an inspection without blocking traffic.

About 7 p.m., the Ever Given sailed past Fayed, a town on the shore of the Great Bitter Lake, under a large orange moon. “It went that way,” said a cook grilling meat at an outdoor restaurant, pointing north. “It is so big!”

Billions of dollars in trade have been lost each day from the grounding of the carrier, one of the largest container ships in the world. As of Monday morning, 367 vessels were trapped in a massive maritime traffic jam in the canal, according to Leth Agencies. Many other shipping companies opted to detour around the southern tip of Africa, adding a week or two to their journeys and driving up fuel costs.

Canal officials confirmed Monday that the shipping channel was still navigable and had not been damaged by the Ever Given, and ship-tracking data showed that traffic had resumed by Monday night. Three livestock carriers with live cattle on board were given priority to make their way through the newly reopened canal.

The Suez Canal Authority said it will send through 113 ships per day. It will take three to four days to clear the backup, and experts expect a new set of headaches as vessels that were held up in the Suez all arrive in ports at the same time and find they have no room to dock and unload their cargo.

Shipping giant Maersk told customers on Monday morning that it “could take 6 days or more” for the jam in the Suez to be fully unsnarled.

The steep financial losses caused by the delays are also expected to lead to a cascade of insurance claims, which could raise thorny questions about who should be held liable for the incident.

With the Ever Given freed, the spotlight is likely to shine on the ongoing investigation into how the vessel got stuck, leading to billions of dollars in losses globally. While strong winds during a dust storm are widely seen as a major factor, the Suez Canal Authority has said that human or technical errors cannot be ruled out.

One focus of the investigation will probably be the role of the two Egyptian canal pilots who were supposed to help the boat’s captain navigate the canal, and whether any communication failures occurred.

The International Chamber of Shipping on Monday called for the results of any investigations to be made public “to ensure any vital lessons are learnt.”

Monday’s successful turnaround came after a series of delays, over several days, that were due to technical and weather challenges preventing the extraction of the vessel from the sand and mud of the canal.

Over the weekend, as progress seemed to stall, Sissi had ordered workers to prepare for an alternative scenario that would have involved lightening the ship by unloading its 18,000 containers. That could have taken days, even weeks, and required large cranes or specialized helicopters, according to industry experts.

Mahfouz reported from Cairo. Farzan reported from Providence, R.I.