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New Attempts Planned to Free Huge Vessel Stuck in Suez Canal

   March 27, 2021 5:49 AM
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by Samy Magdy

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Tugboats on their way to the canal Suez Canal White House offeres to help Egypt reopen the canal
 
The huge container ship remaines stuck sideways in Egypt's Suez Canal for a fifth day Saturday, as authorities prepared to make new attempts to free the vessel and reopen a crucial east-west waterway for global shipping.

The Ever Given, a Panama-flagged ship that carries cargo between Asia and Europe, ran aground Tuesday in the narrow canal that runs between Africa and the Sinai Peninsula.

The massive vessel got stuck in a single-lane stretch of the canal, about six kilometers (3.7 miles) north of the southern entrance, near the city of Suez.

Peter Berdowski, CEO of Boskalis, the salvage firm hired to extract the Ever Given, said the company hoped to pull the container ship free within days using a combination of heavy tugboats, dredging and high tides.

He told the Dutch current affairs show Nieuwsuur on Friday night that the front of the ship is stuck in sandy clay, but the rear "has not been completely pushed into the clay and that is positive because you can use the rear end to pull it free."

Berdowski said two large tugboats were on their way to the canal and are expected to arrive over the weekend. He said the company aims to harness the power of the tugs, dredging and tides, which he said are expected to be up to 50 centimeters (20 inches) higher Saturday.

"The combination of the (tug) boats we will have there, more ground dredged away and the high tide, we hope that will be enough to get the ship free somewhere early next week," he said.

If that doesn't work, the company will remove hundreds of containers from the front of the ship to lighten it, effectively lifting the ship to make it easier to pull free, Berdowski said.

A crane was already on its way that can lift the containers off the ship, he said.

HISTORY

The Suez Canal is an artificial sea-level waterway in Egypt, connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea through the Isthmus of Suez and dividing Africa and Asia. Constructed between 1859 and 1869 by the Suez Canal Company formed by Ferdinand de Lesseps in 1858, it officially opened on 17 November 1869. The canal offers watercraft a more direct route between the North Atlantic and northern Indian oceans via the Mediterranean and Red seas, thus avoiding the South Atlantic and southern Indian oceans and reducing the journey distance from the Arabian Sea to Europe by approximately 8,900 kilometres , or 8-10 days. It extends from the northern terminus of Port Said to the southern terminus of Port Tewfik at the city of Suez. Its length is 193.30 km including its northern and southern access-channels. In 2020, over 18,500 vessels traversed the canal . The original canal featured a single-lane waterway with passing locations in the Ballah Bypass and the Great Bitter Lake. It contained, according to Alois Negrelli's plans, no lock systems, with seawater flowing freely through it. In general, the water in the canal north of the Bitter Lakes flows north in winter and south in summer. South of the lakes, the current changes with the tide at Suez.

While the canal as such was the property of the Egyptian government, European shareholders, mostly French and British, owned the concessionary company which operated it until July 1956, when President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized it—an event which led to the Suez Crisis of October–November 1956. The canal is operated and maintained by the state-owned Suez Canal Authority of Egypt. Under the Convention of Constantinople, it may be used 'in time of war as in time of peace, by every vessel of commerce or of war, without distinction of flag.' Nevertheless, the canal has played an important military strategic role as a naval short-cut and choke-point. Navies with coastlines and bases on both the Mediterranean and Red Seas have a particular interest in the Suez Canal. After Egypt closed the Suez canal at the beginning of the Six Day War on June 5, 1967, the canal remained closed for precisely eight years, reopening on June 5, 1975.

In August 2014, the Egyptian government launched construction to expand and widen the Ballah Bypass for 35 km to speed up the canal's transit-time. The expansion intended to nearly double the capacity of the Suez Canal, from 49 to 97 ships per day. At a cost of 59.4 billion Egyptian pounds , this project was funded with interest-bearing investment certificates issued exclusively to Egyptian entities and individuals. The 'New Suez Canal', as the expansion was dubbed, was opened in a ceremony on 6 August 2015.

On 24 February 2016, the Suez Canal Authority officially opened the new side channel. This side channel, located at the northern side of the east extension of the Suez Canal, serves the East Terminal for berthing and unberthing vessels from the terminal. As the East Container Terminal is located on the Canal itself, before the construction of the new side channel it was not possible to berth or unberth vessels at the terminal while a convoy was running.

History Interim period

Bathymetric chart, northern Gulf of Suez, route to Cairo, 1856 Despite the construction challenges that could have been the result of the alleged difference in sea levels, the idea of finding a shorter route to the east remained alive. In 1830, General Francis Chesney submitted a report to the British government that stated that there was no difference in elevation and that the Suez Canal was feasible, but his report received no further attention. Lieutenant Waghorn established his 'Overland Route', which transported post and passengers to India via Egypt.

Linant de Bellefonds, a French explorer of Egypt, became chief engineer of Egypt's Public Works. In addition to his normal duties, he surveyed the Isthmus of Suez and made plans for the Suez Canal. French Saint-Simonianists showed an interest in the canal and in 1833, Barthélemy Prosper Enfantin tried to draw Muhammad Ali's attention to the canal but was unsuccessful. Alois Negrelli, the Italian-Austrian railroad pioneer, became interested in the idea in 1836.

In 1846, Prosper Enfantin's Société d'Études du Canal de Suez invited a number of experts, among them Robert Stephenson, Negrelli and Paul-Adrien Bourdaloue to study the feasibility of the Suez Canal . Bourdaloue's survey of the isthmus was the first generally accepted evidence that there was no practical difference in altitude between the two seas. Britain, however, feared that a canal open to everyone might interfere with its India trade and therefore preferred a connection by train from Alexandria via Cairo to Suez, which Stephenson eventually built.

Construction by the Suez Canal Company

Suez Canal, 1869 Preparations In 1854 and 1856, Ferdinand de Lesseps obtained a concession from Sa'id Pasha, the Khedive of Egypt and Sudan, to create a company to construct a canal open to ships of all nations. The company was to operate the canal for 99 years from its opening. De Lesseps had used his friendly relationship with Sa'id, which he had developed while he was a French diplomat in the 1830s. As stipulated in the concessions, Ferdinand convened the International Commission for the piercing of the isthmus of Suez consisting of 13 experts from seven countries, among them John Robinson McClean, later President of the Institution of Civil Engineers in London, and again Negrelli, to examine the plans developed by Linant de Bellefonds, and to advise on the feasibility of and the best route for the canal. After surveys and analyses in Egypt and discussions in Paris on various aspects of the canal, where many of Negrelli's ideas prevailed, the commission produced an unanimous report in December 1856 containing a detailed description of the canal complete with plans and profiles. The Suez Canal Company came into being on 15 December 1858.

Opening of the Suez Canal, 1869 The British government had opposed the project from the outset to its completion. The British, who controlled both the Cape route and the Overland route to India and the Far East, favored the status quo, given that a canal might disrupt their commercial and maritime supremacy. Lord Palmerston, the project's most unwavering foe, confessed in the mid-1850s the real motive behind his opposition: that Britain's commercial and maritime relations would be overthrown by the opening of a new route, open to all nations, and thus deprive his country of its present exclusive advantages. As one of the diplomatic moves against the project when it nevertheless went ahead, it disapproved of the use of 'slave labour' for construction of the canal. Involuntary labour on the project ceased, and the viceroy condemned the corvée, halting the project.

Initially international opinion was skeptical and Suez Canal Company shares did not sell well overseas. Britain, Austria, and Russia did not buy a significant number of shares. However, with assistance from the Cattaui banking family, and their relationship with James de Rothschild of the French House of Rothschild bonds and shares were successfully promoted in France and other parts of Europe. All French shares were quickly sold in France. A contemporary British skeptic claimed 'One thing is sure... our local merchant community doesn't pay practical attention at all to this grand work, and it is legitimate to doubt that the canal's receipts... could ever be sufficient to recover its maintenance fee. It will never become a large ship's accessible way in any case.'

Construction Work started on the shore of the future Port Said on 25 April 1859.

1881 drawing of the Suez Canal The excavation took some 10 years, with forced labour being employed until 1864 to dig-out the canal. Some sources estimate that over 30,000 people were working on the canal at any given period, that more than 1.5 million people from various countries were employed, and that thousands of labourers died, many of them from cholera and similar epidemics.

Inauguration

Suez Canal, Egypt. Early 1900s. Goodyear Archival Collection. Brooklyn Museum

Nautical chart of the Suez Canal published shortly after the inauguration, with survey data from HMS Newport The canal opened under French control in November 1869. The opening ceremonies began at Port Said on the evening of 15 November, with illuminations, fireworks, and a banquet on the yacht of the Khedive Isma'il Pasha of Egypt and Sudan. The royal guests arrived the following morning: the Emperor Franz Joseph I, the French Empress Eugenie in the Imperial yacht L'Aigle, the Crown Prince of Prussia, and Prince Louis of Hesse. Other international guests included the American natural historian H. W. Harkness. In the afternoon there were blessings of the canal with both Muslim and Christian ceremonies, a temporary mosque and church having been built side by side on the beach. In the evening there were more illuminations and fireworks.

On the morning of 17 November, a procession of ships entered the canal, headed by the L'Aigle. Among the ships following was HMS Newport, captained by George Nares, which would survey the canal on behalf of the Admiralty a few months later. The Newport was involved in an incident that demonstrated some of the problems with the canal. There were suggestions that the depth of parts of the canal at the time of the inauguration were not as great as promised, and that the deepest part of the channel was not always clear, leading to a risk of grounding. The first day of the passage ended at Lake Timsah, 76 kilometres south of Port Said. The French ship Péluse anchored close to the entrance, then swung around and grounded, the ship and its hawser blocking the way into the lake. The following boats had to anchor in the canal itself until the Péluse was hauled clear the next morning, making it difficult for them to join that night's celebration in Ismailia. Except for the Newport: Nares sent out a boat to carry out soundings, and was able to manoeuver around the Péluse to enter the lake and anchor there for the night.

Ismailia was the scene of more celebrations the following day, including a military 'march past', illuminations and fireworks, and a ball at the Governor's Palace. The convoy set off again on the morning of 19 November, for the remainder of the trip to Suez. After Suez, many of the participants headed for Cairo, and then to the Pyramids, where a new road had been built for the occasion.

An Anchor Line ship, the S.S. Dido, became the first to pass through the Canal from South to North.

Initial difficulties Although numerous technical, political, and financial problems had been overcome, the final cost was more than double the original estimate.

The Khedive, in particular, was able to overcome initial reservations held by both British and French creditors by enlisting the help of the Sursock family, whose deep connections proved invaluable in securing much international support for the project.

After the opening, the Suez Canal Company was in financial difficulties. The remaining works were completed only in 1871, and traffic was below expectations in the first two years. De Lesseps therefore tried to increase revenues by interpreting the kind of net ton referred to in the second concession as meaning a ship's cargo capacity and not only the theoretical net tonnage of the 'Moorsom System' introduced in Britain by the Merchant Shipping Act in 1854. The ensuing commercial and diplomatic activities resulted in the International Commission of Constantinople establishing a specific kind of net tonnage and settling the question of tariffs in its protocol of 18 December 1873. This was the origin of the Suez Canal Net Tonnage and the Suez Canal Special Tonnage Certificate, both of which are still in use today.

The years after opening

Suez Canal, c. 1914

A ship sailing down the Suez Canal in 1955 The canal had an immediate and dramatic effect on world trade. Combined with the American transcontinental railroad completed six months earlier, it allowed the world to be circled in record time. It played an important role in increasing European colonization of Africa. The construction of the canal was one of the reasons for the Panic of 1873 in Great Britain, because goods from the Far East were carried in sailing vessels around the Cape of Good Hope and were stored in British warehouses. An inability to pay his bank debts led Said Pasha's successor, Isma'il Pasha, in 1875 to sell his 44% share in the canal for £4,000,000 , equivalent to £432 million to £456 million in 2019, to the government of the United Kingdom. French shareholders still held the majority. Local unrest caused the British to invade in 1882 and take full control, although nominally Egypt remained part of the Ottoman Empire. The British representative from 1883 to 1907 was Evelyn Baring, 1st Earl of Cromer, who reorganized and modernized the government and suppressed rebellions and corruption, thereby facilitating increased traffic on the canal.

The European Mediterranean countries in particular benefited economically from the Suez Canal, as they now had much faster connections to Asia and East Africa than the North and West European maritime trading nations such as Great Britain, the Netherlands or Germany. The biggest beneficiary in the Mediterranean was Austria-Hungary, which had participated in the planning and construction of the canal. The largest Austrian maritime trading company, Österreichischer Lloyd, experienced rapid expansion after the canal was completed, as did the port city of Trieste, then an Austrian possession. The company was a partner in the Compagnie Universelle du Canal de Suez, whose vice-president was the Lloyd co-founder Pasquale Revoltella.

The Convention of Constantinople in 1888 declared the canal a neutral zone under the protection of the British, who had occupied Egypt and Sudan at the request of Khedive Tewfiq to suppress the Urabi Revolt against his rule. The revolt went on from 1879 to 1882. The British defended the strategically important passage against a major Ottoman attack in 1915, during the First World War. Under the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936, the UK retained control over the canal. The canal was again strategically important in the 1939–1945 Second World War, and Italo-German attempts to capture it were repulsed during the North Africa Campaign, during which the canal was closed to Axis shipping. In 1951 Egypt repudiated the treaty and in October 1954 the UK agreed to remove its troops. Withdrawal was completed on 18 July 1956.

Suez Crisis Main article: Suez Crisis

Smoke rises from oil tanks beside the Suez Canal hit during the initial Anglo-French assault on Port Said, 5 November 1956 Because of Egyptian overtures towards the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and the United States withdrew their pledge to support the construction of the Aswan Dam. Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser responded by nationalizing the canal on 26 July 1956 and transferring it to the Suez Canal Authority, intending to finance the dam project using revenue from the canal. On the same day that the canal was nationalized Nasser also closed the Straits of Tiran to all Israeli ships. This led to the Suez Crisis in which the UK, France, and Israel invaded Egypt. According to the pre-agreed war plans under the Protocol of Sèvres, Israel invaded the Sinai Peninsula on 29 October, forcing Egypt to engage them militarily, and allowing the Anglo-French partnership to declare the resultant fighting a threat to stability in the Middle East and enter the war – officially to separate the two forces but in reality to regain the Canal and bring down the Nasser government.

To save the British from what he thought was a disastrous action and to stop the war from a possible escalation, Canadian Secretary of State for External Affairs Lester B. Pearson proposed the creation of the first United Nations peacekeeping force to ensure access to the canal for all and an Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula. On 4 November 1956, a majority at the United Nations voted for Pearson's peacekeeping resolution, which mandated the UN peacekeepers to stay in Sinai unless both Egypt and Israel agreed to their withdrawal. The United States backed this proposal by putting pressure on the British government through the selling of sterling, which would cause it to depreciate. Britain then called a ceasefire, and later agreed to withdraw its troops by the end of the year. Pearson was later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. As a result of damage and ships sunk under orders from Nasser the canal was closed until April 1957, when it was cleared with UN assistance. A UN force was established to maintain the free navigability of the canal, and peace in the Sinai Peninsula.

Arab–Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973

Egyptian vehicles crossing the Suez Canal on 7 October 1973, during the Yom Kippur War

Israeli tank crossing the Suez Canal, 1973 In May 1967, Nasser ordered the UN peacekeeping forces out of Sinai, including the Suez Canal area. Israel objected to the closing of the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping. The canal had been closed to Israeli shipping since 1949, except for a short period in 1951–1952.

After the 1967 Six-Day War, Israeli forces occupied the Sinai peninsula, including the entire east bank of the Suez Canal. Unwilling to allow the Israelis to use the canal, Egypt immediately imposed a blockade which closed the canal to all shipping. Fifteen cargo ships, known as the 'Yellow Fleet', were trapped in the canal, and would remain there until 1975.

In 1973, during the Yom Kippur War, the canal was the scene of a major crossing by the Egyptian army into Israeli-occupied Sinai and a counter-crossing by the Israeli army to Egypt. Much wreckage from this conflict remains visible along the canal's edges.

Mine clearing operations After the Yom Kippur War, the United States initiated Operation Nimbus Moon. The amphibious assault ship USS Inchon was sent to the Canal, carrying 12 RH-53D minesweeping helicopters of Helicopter Mine Countermeasures Squadron 12. These partly cleared the canal between May and December 1974. She was relieved by the LST USS Barnstable County . The British Royal Navy initiated Operation Rheostat and Task Group 65.2 provided for Operation Rheostat One , the minehunters HMS Maxton, HMS Bossington, and HMS Wilton, the Fleet Clearance Diving Team and HMS Abdiel, a practice minelayer/MCMV support ship; and for Operation Rheostat Two the minehunters HMS Hubberston and HMS Sheraton, and HMS Abdiel. When the Canal Clearance Operations were completed, the canal and its lakes were considered 99% clear of mines. The canal was then reopened by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat aboard an Egyptian destroyer, which led the first convoy northbound to Port Said in 1975. At his side stood the Iranian Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi, delegated to represent his father, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran. The cruiser USS Little Rock was the only American naval ship in the convoy.

UN presence The UNEF mandate expired in 1979. Despite the efforts of the United States, Israel, Egypt, and others to obtain an extension of the UN role in observing the peace between Israel and Egypt, as called for under the Egypt–Israel Peace Treaty of 1979, the mandate could not be extended because of the veto by the Soviet Union in the UN Security Council, at the request of Syria. Accordingly, negotiations for a new observer force in the Sinai produced the Multinational Force and Observers , stationed in Sinai in 1981 in coordination with a phased Israeli withdrawal. It is there under agreements between the United States, Israel, Egypt, and other nations.

Bypass expansion Main article: New Suez Canal In the summer of 2014, months after taking office as President of Egypt, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi ordered the expansion of the Ballah Bypass from 61 metres wide to 312 metres wide for 35 kilometres . The project was called the New Suez Canal, as it allows ships to transit the canal in both directions simultaneously. The project cost more than E£59.4 billion and was completed within one year. Sisi declared the expanded channel open for business in a ceremony on 6 August 2015.

2021 obstruction by Ever Given Main article: 2021 Suez Canal obstruction

Satellite image of Ever Given blocking the canal in March 2021 On 23 March 2021, at around 05:40 UTC , the Suez Canal was blocked in both directions by the ultra-large Golden-class container ship Ever Given. The ship, operated by Evergreen Marine, was en route from China to the Netherlands when she ran aground after a strong gust of wind blew her off course. Upon running aground, Ever Given turned sideways, completely blocking the canal. Although part of the length of the canal is paralleled by an older narrower channel which can still be used to bypass obstructions, this particular incident happened in a section of the canal with only one channel.

At the dawn of the incident, many economists and trade experts have commented on the effects of the obstruction if not resolved quickly, citing how important the Suez is to global trade, and the incident is likely to drastically affect the global economy because of the trapped goods scheduled to go through the canal following the incident. Among the products, oil shipments are the most affected in the immediate aftermath, due to a significant amount of them remaining blocked with no way to reach their destination. Referring to the European and American market, a few maritime experts have disputed the prediction of a drastic effect on trade, saying this 'really isn't a substantial transit route for crude' according to Marshall Steeves, energy markets analyst at IHS Markit, and 'there are existing stocks' according to Camille Egloff of Boston Consulting Group and alternative sources of supply, noting that traffic has only slowed down and that this might only impact sectors with existing shortages such as the semiconductor industry. International Chamber of Shipping estimates that up to $3 billion worth of cargo passes through the Suez Canal every day.

It is said the blockage is going to impact on cargo schedules around the world. Shipping companies are also considering whether to divert their ships along the much longer route around Cape Agulhas. The first container ship to do so is Ever Given's sister ship, Ever Greet.

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