How did a cargo ship get stuck in the Suez Canal, and how are they going to un-stick it?

Stranded cargo ship blocks Egypt's Suez Canal
Stranded cargo ship blocks Egypt's Suez Canal... 02:21

Last Updated Mar 26, 2021 9:08 AM EDT

Tel Aviv — The massive container ship that ran aground in Egypt's Suez Canal early this week was still blocking one of the world's busiest shipping routes on Friday, and officials have said it could take days — possibly even weeks — to move it out of the way. 

The logjam of cargo ships created by the blockage of the shortest route between Europe and Asia, and the hulking ship wedged between the narrow canal walls, are visible from space. As CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer reports, it's a monster of a problem.

How did it get stuck?

The MV Ever Given's owners say a gust of wind pushed it and its huge cargo of more than 20,000 shipping containers sideways in the canal on Tuesday, wedging it between the canal's sandy banks.

Egypt Suez Canal
A satellite image from Cnes2021, Distribution Airbus DS, shows the cargo ship MV Ever Given stuck in the Suez Canal near Suez, Egypt, March 25, 2021. Cnes2021/Distribution Airbus DS/AP

Giora Kaddar, a marine underwriter in the Israeli capital of Tel Aviv, told CBS News that navigating a ship so huge through the narrow Suez Canal in the first place is "like brain surgery." 

At 1,300 feet, the Ever Given is almost as long as the Empire State building or Chicago's Willis Tower are tall, and it's wedged across a canal just half that size.

The vessel is 164 feet wide, which Kaddar said leaves the people piloting it only about 82 feet of leeway to squeeze it through the passage — no wiggle room at all.  

How do you un-stick it?

Heavy equipment has worked day and night to free the Ever Given for days, but with no luck so far.

Excavators have been scooping sand away at both ends — with an estimated 19,600-26,000 cubic yards to shift — in hope that, at high tide, tugboats might be able to pull the vessel free.

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An image released on March 25, 2021 by Egypt's Suez Canal Authority shows tug boats alongside the hull of the MV Ever Given container ship, which was stuck across the canal for a third day.  Suez Canal Authority

If that doesn't work, salvage crews may decide to drain its fuel tanks to make it lighter.

There has even been some discussion of trying to pull on both ends of the ship with cables fixed to heavy machines on the land, but with any of these options, there's an inherent risk of damaging or even capsizing the ship.

Egypt's Suez Canal Authority (SCA) thanked the U.S. on Friday for an apparent offer "to contribute to these efforts, and looks forward to cooperating with the U.S. in this regard in appreciation of this good initiative which confirms the friendly relations and cooperation between the two countries."

It was not clear what help, if any, the U.S. would provide to Egypt or the Dutch and Japanese salvage companies working to dislodge the ship

High-stakes traffic jam 

The Ever Given blockage creates a sizeable dilemma for other ships. As long as it's in the way other vessels continue to pile up both at the northern entrance from the Mediterranean and in the Red Sea to the south. 

Egypt Suez Canal
The MV Ever Given, a Panama-flagged cargo ship wedged across the Suez Canal and blocking traffic in the vital waterway, is seen on March 26, 2021. Mohamed Elshahed/AP

The blockage is holding up an estimated 10% of the world's overall trade that normally uses the canal as a shortcut between Asia and Europe. Some 30% of the world's container traffic uses the canal, and while less than 5% of the global petroleum product supply goes through it, that's enough to impact gas prices.

Suez Canal Political Map
A map shows the Suez Canal, a man-made, sea-level waterway that cuts through northern Egypt, connecting the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea, providing sea cargo an easy shortcut between Europe to Asia and eliminating the need to navigate around all of Africa. Getty/iStockphoto

Other vessels must decide to either wait it out or opt for the very long way round Africa's southern tip, which can add a week to a voyage and carries additional security risks.

The Financial Times reported on Friday that a number of shipping groups had contacted the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet over maritime security concerns for vessels that do chose to sail south around Africa, which would put them in waters off the continent's eastern coast that have a long history of piracy. 

"Africa has the risk of piracy, especially in east Africa," Zhao Qing-feng of the China Shipowners' Association in Shanghai, told the FT, saying owners could need to hire extra security forces to board their vessels before making the extended journey.

It's just one more factor that could cause a serious slowdown and a potential price-hike for goods moving to Europe and the U.S. from Asia, and one more headache for a global supply-chain system already strained by the coronavirus pandemic.