Cairo — Marine traffic through the Suez Canal remained blocked on Friday for the fourth consecutive day, with dozens of ships stuck at both the north and south entrances to the shortest route between Asia and Europe. Efforts, stuck sideways across the narrow canal since Tuesday, were picking up, and while one of the teams in charge of the operation said it could take weeks, an advisor to Egypt's president offered a more optimistic time table.
Mohab Mamish, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's advisor on seaports and the former chairman of the Suez Canal Authority, told the AFP news agency on Thursday that navigation through the canal "will resume again within 48-72 hours, maximum."
Mamish cited his "experience with several rescue operations of this kind" and said he knew "every centimeter of the canal."
The SCA announced earlier this week that all navigation through the canal would be "temporarily suspended" until the hulking Panamanian-flagged container vessel MV Ever Given could be re-floated.
The SCA said Thursday after meeting with the Dutch salvage firm SMIT, which is helping lead the operation, that about 19,600-26,000 cubic yards of sand had to be moved, reaching a depth of 40 to 50 feet along the canal's bank, to dislodge the ship.
On Wednesday the SCA allowed 13 ships to enter the canal's northern end, from the Mediterranean, hoping the Ever Given would be un-stuck quickly and the other cargo vessels would be able to continue on their journeys. But those ships only made it as far as a lake in the middle of the canal, and they may be going nowhere fast.
Egypt is using at least eight large tugboats and excavation equipment on the banks of the canal, but so far all efforts to refloat the nearly-quarter-of-a-mile-long, 247,000-ton container ship have failed.
The SCA said Thursday that an "alternative scenario" was being adopted, with the vessels that entered the canal from the north on Wednesday "dropping anchor in the Bitter Lakes waiting area, until navigation can be fully resumed."
Taiwan's Evergreen Marine Corp, which is operating the ship on a lease on behalf of the Japanese company that owns it, hired the Dutch firm Smit Salvage and Japan's Nippon Salvage to work with the vessel's captain and the Suez Canal Authority to figure out how to re-float it.
Peter Berdowski, CEO of the Dutch company Boskalis that owns Smit Salvage, said Thursday that it was still too early to determine how long the job might take.
"We can't exclude it might take weeks, depending on the situation," Berdowski told the Dutch television program "Nieuwsuur," according to Reuters. Shipping sources told Reuters that if the delays continue, ships could potentially start re-routing around the southern tip of Africa, which adds thousands of miles and about a week to the journey.
The Japanese company that owns the Ever Given, Shoei Kisen, told The Associated Press that it was cooperating with the local authorities, but "the operation is extremely difficult."
"We are extremely sorry for causing tremendous worry to the ships that are traveling or scheduled to travel in the Suez Canal, and all the related people," the company said.
As much as 30% of the world's shipping container freight typically passes through the Suez Canal every day — a journey that takes around six hours — amounting to about 12% of the total goods traded globally, according to Reuters.
The news agency cited industry consultancy Kpler as saying that while the canal only facilitates the transit of about 4.4% of the world's total flow of oil products, a prolonged disruption could impact supplies to Asia and Europe, and an impact on global oil prices appeared inevitable.
Meanwhile, the incident — and in particular the fact that a single, albeit very large ship has disrupted global trade, and a photo of the ship's hull dwarfing a lone excavator sent to try and dislodge it — has inspired a wealth of memes on social media. CBS' own "salty" Stephen Colbert even donned a captain's hat to dissect the maritime disaster on his Wednesday evening show.
While the fun continues online, stress levels will no doubt continue increasing for both the ship's owners, who have to foot the bill for the salvage operation, and the Egyptian canal authority, which was already suffering from a drop in revenue thanks to the COVID pandemic.