Four days ago, the “Ever Given” container ship, which is the length of four football pitches, became wedged across the width of the Suez Canal. As lines of ships become increasingly backed up along the canal, estimates of £7 billion worth of goods per day are being held up.
In an interview with Mishal Husain on BBC Radio 4’s 'Today' programme, J. & J. Denholm Chairman, John Denholm, who is also President of the UK Chamber of Shipping, shared his perspective on how the situation might be resolved.
John Denholm explained, “The container lines face a really difficult decision here. Do they divert their ships around the Cape of Good Hope, adding more than ten days to their trip, or do they wait to see if the canal can be opened quickly. The options for getting the ship out are fairly straightforward. It’s either diggers and tugs, which could be a relatively quick solution, or they’ve got to start lightering the ship. That means finding the equipment, such as cranes, lighter barges, tanker barges, getting them there, and then starting the slow process of taking the cargo off the ship.”
Since the ‘diggers and tugs’ option is essentially what has been used so far, Mishal Husain asked if it is worth pressing on, or whether it is time to go to the unloading option.
John Denholm responded, “I think it is probably worth them pressing on with it until starting the unloading option is a reality. If they can move more powerful tugs in, I suspect they can get more diggers in. If it works, it’s a relatively quick fix. The unloading option would take much longer.”
While there is no port along the Suez Canal with the equipment required to lighter the “Ever Given”, John Denholm said that there is a lot of marine construction equipment in the Mediterranean and the Gulf. “The salvors are experts at pulling this equipment together in short time, mobilising it and getting it to where it is needed. It is a difficult conundrum but you can get it through by sea. However, think of the height of the “Ever Given”; a crane to lift containers off the ship is going to have to stretch more than 200 feet high. This is a big crane.”
When asked about timescales, John Denholm’s view is, “If we go through the lightering process, I suspect we’re talking weeks. Therefore, it’s worth pursuing the tugs and digger process.”
Update: By the time John Denholm spoke again to the 'Today' programme on Monday 29th March, the stern of the “Ever Given” had been freed from the canal bank. The traffic was once again able to flow through the canal and the focus was on how it happened and how long it would take to get back to normal. In response to a question from Nick Robinson, John Denholm said there would be delays but the container lines did the right thing in diverting their ships and he did not think they would affect supplies to the consumer.