In the end it was a full moon that freed the Ever Given, says Serge Schmemann in The New York Times. On Monday morning a giant spring tide wrenched the “mammoth” container ship out of the Egyptian mud, unclogging the Suez Canal after a six-day blockage in this global trade artery. Soon afterwards, about 350 nearby freighter captains were out of their bunks and hauling anchor, ready to get back to delivering tens of billions of dollars’ worth of the world’s stuff, from Ikea furniture to live sheep. And everyone who had delighted in online memes about the “toylike excavator” next to that “iron leviathan” sighed and went back to “drearier crises” such as the pandemic. All back to boring old normal because the moon “succeeded where puny machines could not”.
Well, the machines had something to do with it, says The Washington Post. The Ever Given was dragged loose after six “frantic, hazardous days of effort” during which the “iron wall of futility” loomed over a “beetle-like” swarm of machinery and humans. On day two, when it became clear it was going to take more than marshalling a few tugboats and hitting reverse, the ship’s Japanese owners called in the big guns. In this case, a crack team of Dutch shipwreck specialists from a “legendary” maritime salvage firm, Smit. These are serious guys, say Anna Koh and Alex Longley in Bloomberg, known for parachuting from one wreck to the next, often in violent storms. The firm is synonymous with some of the most daring naval salvage missions in maritime history, from lifting a sunken Russian nuclear submarine in 2001 to siphoning fuel out of the Costa Concordia after the cruise ship capsized off Italy in 2012.
The specialists advised using heavy seagoing tugboats that could generate far more pulling power than those on site. But the nearest ones were in Europe, blocked off from where they were needed by the Ever Given itself. “Supply from the Mediterranean was impossible,” Smit told a Dutch newspaper. “We had to start with the butt.” It would take two days for a pair of these “behemoths” to make their way up from the Red Sea. In the meantime, dredgers and diggers shifted thousands of tonnes of sand a day, high tides came and went, and the megaship stayed stuck.
On Sunday night the first of the two big tugs turned up: the Alp Guard, described as “the Godzilla of tugboats” by Gregory Tylawsky, founder of the Maritime Expert Group. At 3am on Monday, with specialised dredgers still chewing at the bank under a giant full moon, the Alp Guard and nine other tugs took up position. As the tide began to rise, they gunned the engines. Shortly before dawn, the second behemoth, the Italian Carlo Magno, arrived and hitched on, adding its power to the final hours of “tugboat ballet”. Finally, Captain Gabriele De Cesaris recalls, “there was no noise, we could only sense… that we were pushing, and realised the speed was changing. Instead of standing still, we were moving forward.”
The bigger picture
Freighters such as the Ever Given are still the main way we move things around the world: 70% of global trade is literally “shipped”. For 150 years the Suez Canal has been essential to this global flow of goods, providing a link between Asia and Europe that cuts out weeks of travel and tens of thousands of dollars in fuel and other costs per ship. In 2019, about 19,000 ships carried 1.25 billion tons of cargo through the canal. That’s almost 15% of the world’s container shipping capacity, all travelling up one narrow 120-mile stretch of water. An estimated $9.6bn worth of freight passes through daily – when there’s not something in the way.