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Tugs, tides free ship; Suez Canal unclogged

by The Associated Press | March 30, 2021 at 2:05 a.m.
In this photo released by Suez Canal Authority, the Ever Given, a Panama-flagged cargo ship is accompanied by Suez Canal tugboats as it moves in the Suez Canal, Egypt, Monday, March 29, 2021. Salvage teams on Monday set free a colossal container ship that has halted global trade through the Suez Canal, bringing an end to a crisis that for nearly a week had clogged one of the world’s most vital maritime arteries. (Suez Canal Authority via AP)

SUEZ, Egypt -- Salvage teams on Monday freed a colossal container ship stuck for nearly a week in the Suez Canal, ending a crisis that had clogged one of the world's most vital waterways and halted billions of dollars a day in maritime commerce.

Helped by the tides, a flotilla of tugboats wrenched the bulbous bow of the skyscraper-sized Ever Given from the canal's sandy bank, where it had been firmly lodged since March 23.

Tug horns blared as they guided the Ever Given through the water after days of futility that had captivated the world, drawing scrutiny and social media ridicule.

"We pulled it off!" said Peter Berdowski, chief executive officer of Boskalis, the salvage firm hired to free the Ever Given. "I am excited to announce that our team of experts, working in close collaboration with the Suez Canal Authority, successfully refloated the Ever Given ... thereby making free passage through the Suez Canal possible again."

The giant vessel headed toward the Great Bitter Lake, a wide stretch of water halfway between the north and south ends of the canal, where it will be inspected, said Evergreen Marine Corp., a Taiwan-based shipping company that operates the ship.

More than 40 vessels that were anchored at the Great Bitter Lake waiting for the Ever Given to be freed have resumed their southbound journey through the waterway, according to canal services firm Leth Agencies.

Over 30 southbound vessels anchored off the Mediterranean city of Port Said are expected to enter the canal, it said.

Reportedly buffeted by a sandstorm, the Ever Given crashed into a bank of a single-lane stretch of the canal about 3.7 miles north of the southern entrance, near the city of Suez. That created a nautical traffic jam that held up $9 billion a day in global trade and strained supply chains already burdened by the coronavirus pandemic.

At least 367 vessels, carrying everything from crude oil to cattle, are backed up as they wait to traverse the canal. Dozens of others have taken the long, alternate route around the Cape of Good Hope at Africa's southern tip -- a 3,100-mile detour that costs ships hundreds of thousands of dollars in fuel and other costs.

Egypt, which considers the canal a source of national pride and crucial revenue, has lost over $95 million in tolls, according to the data firm Refinitiv. President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, who for days was silent about the crisis, praised Monday's events.

"Egyptians have succeeded in ending the crisis," he wrote on Facebook, "despite the massive technical complexity."

In the village of Amer, which overlooks the canal, residents cheered as the vessel moved along. Many scrambled to get a closer look while others mockingly waved goodbye to the departing ship from their fields of clover.

"Mission accomplished," villager Abdalla Ramadan said. "The whole world is relieved."

The U.S. Embassy in Cairo tweeted its congratulations to Egypt.

While the canal is now unblocked, it is unclear when traffic would return to normal. Analysts expect it could take at least another 10 days to clear the backlog on either end.

The breakthrough came after days of immense effort with a salvage team from the Netherlands. Tugboats pushed and pulled to budge the behemoth from the shore, their work buoyed by high tide at dawn Monday that led to the vessel's refloating. Specialized dredgers dug out the stern and vacuumed sand and mud from beneath the bow.

The operation was extremely delicate. While the Ever Given was stuck, the rising and falling tides put stress on the vessel, which is about a quarter mile long, raising concerns it could crack or break.

Berdowski told Dutch radio station NPO 1 the company had always believed it would be the two powerful tugboats it sent that would free the ship. Monday's strong tide "helped push the ship at the top while we pulled at the bottom and luckily it shot free," he said.

"We were helped enormously by the strong falling tide we had this afternoon. In effect, you have the forces of nature pushing hard with you and they pushed harder than the two sea tugs could pull," Berdowski added.

The crew on the tugs was "euphoric," but there also was a tense moment when the huge ship was floating free "so then you have to get it under control very quickly with the tugs around it so that it doesn't push itself back into the other side" of the canal, he said.

Jubilant workers on a tugboat sailing with the Ever Given chanted, "Mashhour, No. 1," referring to the dredger that worked around the vessel. The dredger is named for Mashhour Ahmed Mashhour, assigned to run the canal with others when it was nationalized in 1956 by President Gamal Abdel-Nasser.

Once the Ever Given is inspected in Great Bitter Lake, officials will decide whether the Panama-flagged, Japanese-owned ship hauling goods from Asia to Europe would continue to its original destination of Rotterdam, or if it would need to enter another port for repairs.

Information for this article was contributed by Mike Corder and Jon Gambrell of The Associated Press.

In this photo released by Suez Canal Authority, the Ever Given, a Panama-flagged cargo ship, is pulled by one of the Suez Canal tugboats, in the Suez Canal, Egypt, Monday, March 29, 2021. Engineers on Monday "partially refloated " the colossal container ship that continues to block traffic through the Suez Canal, authorities said, without providing further details about when the vessel would be set free. (Suez Canal Authority via AP)
In this photo released by Suez Canal Authority, the Ever Given, a Panama-flagged cargo ship, is pulled by one of the Suez Canal tugboats, in the Suez Canal, Egypt, Monday, March 29, 2021. Engineers on Monday "partially refloated " the colossal container ship that continues to block traffic through the Suez Canal, authorities said, without providing further details about when the vessel would be set free. (Suez Canal Authority via AP)
Ever Given, a Panama-flagged cargo ship that is wedged across the Suez Canal and blocking traffic in the vital waterway is seen Monday, March 29, 2021. Engineers on Monday “partially refloated” the colossal container ship that continues to block traffic through the Suez Canal, a canal services firm said, without providing further details about when the vessel would be fully set free. (AP Photo/Mohamed Elshahed)
Ever Given, a Panama-flagged cargo ship that is wedged across the Suez Canal and blocking traffic in the vital waterway is seen Monday, March 29, 2021. Engineers on Monday “partially refloated” the colossal container ship that continues to block traffic through the Suez Canal, a canal services firm said, without providing further details about when the vessel would be fully set free. (AP Photo/Mohamed Elshahed)
In this photo released by Suez Canal Authority, the Ever Given, a Panama-flagged cargo ship is accompanied by Suez Canal tugboats as it moves in the Suez Canal, Egypt, Monday, March 29, 2021. Salvage teams on Monday set free a colossal container ship that has halted global trade through the Suez Canal, bringing an end to a crisis that for nearly a week had clogged one of the world's most vital maritime arteries. (Suez Canal Authority via AP)
In this photo released by Suez Canal Authority, the Ever Given, a Panama-flagged cargo ship is accompanied by Suez Canal tugboats as it moves in the Suez Canal, Egypt, Monday, March 29, 2021. Salvage teams on Monday set free a colossal container ship that has halted global trade through the Suez Canal, bringing an end to a crisis that for nearly a week had clogged one of the world's most vital maritime arteries. (Suez Canal Authority via AP)
In this photo released by Suez Canal Authority, the Ever Given, a Panama-flagged cargo ship is accompanied by Suez Canal tugboats as it moves in the Suez Canal, Egypt, Monday, March 29, 2021. Salvage teams on Monday set free a colossal container ship that has halted global trade through the Suez Canal, bringing an end to a crisis that for nearly a week had clogged one of the world’s most vital maritime arteries. (Suez Canal Authority via AP)
In this photo released by Suez Canal Authority, the Ever Given, a Panama-flagged cargo ship is accompanied by Suez Canal tugboats as it moves in the Suez Canal, Egypt, Monday, March 29, 2021. Salvage teams on Monday set free a colossal container ship that has halted global trade through the Suez Canal, bringing an end to a crisis that for nearly a week had clogged one of the world’s most vital maritime arteries. (Suez Canal Authority via AP)
Ever Given, a Panama-flagged cargo ship that is wedged across the Suez Canal and blocking traffic in the vital waterway, is seen Monday, March 29, 2021. Engineers on Monday “partially refloated” the colossal container ship that continues to block traffic through the Suez Canal, a canal services firm said, without providing further details about when the vessel would be fully set free. (AP Photo/Mohamed Elshahed)
Ever Given, a Panama-flagged cargo ship that is wedged across the Suez Canal and blocking traffic in the vital waterway, is seen Monday, March 29, 2021. Engineers on Monday “partially refloated” the colossal container ship that continues to block traffic through the Suez Canal, a canal services firm said, without providing further details about when the vessel would be fully set free. (AP Photo/Mohamed Elshahed)
People watch Ever Given, a Panama-flagged cargo ship, that has been stuck sideways and blocked traffic in Egypt's Suez Canal, move past after it was set free by salvage teams, Monday, March 29, 2021. (AP Photo/Mohamed Elshahed)
People watch Ever Given, a Panama-flagged cargo ship, that has been stuck sideways and blocked traffic in Egypt's Suez Canal, move past after it was set free by salvage teams, Monday, March 29, 2021. (AP Photo/Mohamed Elshahed)
This satellite photo from Planet Labs Inc. shows the Ever Given cargo ship stuck in Egypt's Suez Canal as a mass of ships wait in the Red Sea to pass through the waterway Monday, March 29, 2021. Engineers on Monday "partially refloated" the colossal container ship that continues to block traffic through the Suez Canal, authorities said, without providing further details about when the vessel would be set free. (Planet Labs Inc. via AP)
This satellite photo from Planet Labs Inc. shows the Ever Given cargo ship stuck in Egypt's Suez Canal as a mass of ships wait in the Red Sea to pass through the waterway Monday, March 29, 2021. Engineers on Monday "partially refloated" the colossal container ship that continues to block traffic through the Suez Canal, authorities said, without providing further details about when the vessel would be set free. (Planet Labs Inc. via AP)
This satellite photo from Planet Labs Inc. shows the Ever Given cargo ship stuck in Egypt's Suez Canal Monday, March 29, 2021. Engineers on Monday "partially refloated" the colossal container ship that continues to block traffic through the Suez Canal, authorities said, without providing further details about when the vessel would be set free. (Planet Labs Inc. via AP)
This satellite photo from Planet Labs Inc. shows the Ever Given cargo ship stuck in Egypt's Suez Canal Monday, March 29, 2021. Engineers on Monday "partially refloated" the colossal container ship that continues to block traffic through the Suez Canal, authorities said, without providing further details about when the vessel would be set free. (Planet Labs Inc. via AP)
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