Suez Canal Blockage Is Rare Accident Along Key Maritime Route
Ships pass in convoy through the Suez Canal in Egypt. (Photographer: Kristian Helgesen/Bloomberg)

Suez Canal Blockage Is Rare Accident Along Key Maritime Route

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The grounding of a 200,000-ton container ship that’s brought the Suez Canal to a halt for days is a dramatic, though rare, example of a serious incident on the key trade artery.

Movement of ships between the Red and Mediterranean seas has been halted since early Tuesday and efforts to dislodge the Ever Given have so far been unsuccessful, raising prospects that it may take through the weekend to resolve.

An average of more than 50 ships a day pass through the canal -- which handles at least 10% of global trade -- and accidents have been extremely infrequent, with 75 shipping incidents reported over the past decade, according to Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty SE.

Suez Canal Blockage Is Rare Accident Along Key Maritime Route

More than a third of those involved container ships and the most common cause is grounding, as has happened to the Ever Given, the insurer said in a statement.

The latest blockage does highlight the risks faced by the shipping industry as more and more vessels transit maritime choke points including the Suez, Panama Canal, the Strait of Hormuz and Southeast Asia’s Malacca Strait. Those routes are also having to accommodate increasingly larger ships that are more complex to rescue. Container-carrying capacity of vessels has doubled in the past decade, according to Allianz.

Suez Canal Blockage Is Rare Accident Along Key Maritime Route

“I have never seen a container vessel this large grounded so hard in a canal that way,” said Lindsay Malen-Habib, president of the American Salvage Association, referring to the Ever Given. “This is a first that I can remember.”

Current disruptions are nothing compared to the eight-year shutdown of the Suez Canal in 1967.

Egyptian and Israeli forces faced off across the waterway that year during the Six-Day War and again in 1973 during the Yom Kippur conflict -- it wasn’t until 1975 that the canal was cleared of sunk ships and reopened.

During that period, shippers had to go around Africa, adding time and expense to world trade. The closure also ensnared 15 cargo ships -- dubbed the Yellow Fleet -- partway through their canal transit, turning a day-long journey into an eight-year ordeal.

In 2016, two separate incidents occurred where ships ended up blocking the canal. In one case, the shutdown lasted two days.

Suez Canal Blockage Is Rare Accident Along Key Maritime Route

The latest closure has halted the transit of about 185 ships, according to Richard Meade, London-based managing editor of Lloyd’s List Maritime Intelligence. Among the queue are 40 bulk carriers hauling commodities ranging from crops to dry goods like cement and 17 crude oil tankers, Bloomberg data show.

Other waterways have also experienced significant disruptions. The Panama Canal closed for a day in 1989, when U.S. military forces staged an assault on the Central American country to depose the country’s leader Manuel Noriega. Just two years ago, a chemical plant fire in Texas prompted the three-day closure of the Houston Ship Channel in 2019.

A Brief History of Canal Closures

  • July 2018: Suez Canal shut for several hours after Greek-owned container ship Panamax Alexander suffered engine failure that led to a five-ship collision
  • April 28, 2016: Container ship MSC Fabiola ran aground in Suez Canal, blocking southbound traffic for two days
  • Dec. 8-9, 2010: The Panama Canal closes for 17 hours because of heavy rains and flooding, the first closure since the one-day shutdown in December 1989 during the U.S. invasion of the Central American country
  • June 1967-June 1975: Suez Canal shut down by Egyptian authorities after Six-Day War
  • July 1956: Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the waterway, sparking the Suez Crisis that lead to Israel attack and Britain and France intervening. The canal closed from October 1956 to March 1957

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