With the Suez Canal Blocked, Shippers Go Around Africa

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Shipowners are beginning to reroute ships bound for the Suez Canal around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, a costly alternative to avoid the logjam of vessels caused by the giant container ship blocking the canal.

There are growing signs that the effort to dislodge the ship, Ever Given, may take many days if not weeks. Already, more than 100 vessels are stuck at either end awaiting clear passage.

When deciding whether to divert, a shipping company will weigh the likely cost of sitting for days outside the canal versus the added time of steaming around Africa and other potential risks.

“It is like choosing the queue at the post office; it is never the right decision,” said Alex Booth, head of research at Kpler, a firm that tracks petroleum shipping.

Already, seven giant carriers of liquefied natural gas appear to have decided to change course away from the canal, according to Kpler.

One of these ships, chartered by Royal Dutch Shell, had picked up a cargo of gas at Sabine Pass in Texas and was heading toward the canal when it made a sharp turn in the Atlantic Ocean toward Africa. Another, operated by Qatargas, a state energy company, loaded at Ras Laffan, the Qatar energy hub, and headed for Suez but then veered away toward the Cape of Good Hope before reaching the Red Sea.

Container ships are also changing their plans. HMM, a Korean shipping company, ordered one of its vessels that was headed to Asia from Britain via the canal to go around Africa instead, according to NOH Ji-hwan, a spokesman for the company.

Mr. Booth said that it would be unlikely for a ship that was already waiting at the canal to backtrack all the way around Africa. That would mean a nearly six-week journey to reach Amsterdam in the Netherlands compared with just 13 days from the canal.

If the call is made in the early part of a journey, though, it may make sense. For instance, Kpler estimates that a trip around the cape from the Saudi oil terminal Ras Tanura would require 39 days, versus 24 days by way of Suez.

Along with added costs, the longer journey may involve some heightened risk, including piracy off West Africa. Crews may also be unfamiliar with the waters around Africa’s southern tip where the convergence of warm and cool currents produces turbulent and unpredictable conditions. Early Portuguese navigators called this region “the cape of storms.”

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