Half of Red Sea container ships rerouting
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Half of Red Sea container ships rerouting

Maersk bucking the trend, saying it will return to using Suez Canal

A military helicopter operated by Yemen-based Houthi rebels flies over the cargo ship Galaxy Leader in the Red Sea on Nov 20. (Photo: Houthi Military Media Handout via Reuters)
A military helicopter operated by Yemen-based Houthi rebels flies over the cargo ship Galaxy Leader in the Red Sea on Nov 20. (Photo: Houthi Military Media Handout via Reuters)

Half of the container-ship fleet that regularly transits the Red Sea and Suez Canal is avoiding the route now because of the threat of attacks, according to new industry data.

The tally compiled by Flexport Inc shows 299 vessels with a combined capacity to carry 4.3 million containers have either changed course or plan to. That’s about double the number from a week ago and equates to about 18% of global capacity.

The diverted journeys around Africa can take as much as 25% longer than using the Suez Canal shortcut between Asia and Europe, according to Flexport. Those trips are more costly and may lead to higher prices for consumers on everything from sneakers to food to oil if the longer journeys persist.

Denmark-based Maersk is among the few bucking the trend. It is preparing to send almost all container vessels travelling between Asia and Europe through the Suez Canal from now on while diverting only a handful around Africa, a Reuters breakdown of the group’s schedule showed on Thursday.

Maersk said on Dec 24 that it was preparing a return to the Red Sea, citing the deployment of a US-led military operation to protect vessels, and on Wednesday released schedules showing ships were headed for Suez in the coming weeks.

A detailed breakdown showed that while Maersk had diverted 26 of its own ships around the Cape of Good Hope in the last 10 days or so, only five more were scheduled to start the same journey.

The attacks in the Red Sea are being carried out by Yemen-based Houthis, who say they’re targeting ships linked to Israel in support of the Palestinians. But ships without direct links to Israel also have been targeted, and as the escalation of the war threatens global trade, a US-led task force is trying to bolster security on the key waterway.

Some ships are trying to broadcast their neutrality as they continue using the route. Three vessels — two container ships and an oil tanker — are currently traversing the waterway and signaling they had no contact with Israel, according to TankerTrackers.com and ship tracking data compiled by Bloomberg. All three previously called at Russia.

The trend in Flexport’s numbers mirrors a separate count by the Swiss freight-forwarder Kuehne + Nagel International that, as of Wednesday, showed 364 vessels with capacity for 5 million, 20-foot-container units being rerouted around Africa. That compares with 314 vessels on Dec 22.

The figures show the scale of the mounting maritime disruption after Houthis launched more than 100 attacks on commercial ships in the past month. The container ship MSC United VIII was targeted on Tuesday while en route to Pakistan from Saudi Arabia.

Fifteen container vessels — 10 of them operated by Maersk — have either stayed on course or recently abandoned diversion plans in order to cross into the Red Sea toward Suez, according to Flexport’s analysis of Alphaliner data as of Wednesday.

However, Hapag-Lloyd said it would keep its vessels away from the area even after the launch of a US-led task force to protect the key trade route from militant attacks.

According to Clarksons Research data released on Thursday, arrivals into the Gulf of Aden declined 40% between Dec 22 and Dec 26, compared with the average for the first half of the month.

Container ship arrivals were down 87%, gas tankers about 30% and car carriers about 25%.

It’s a similar picture for Suez Canal transits, which were down about 45% between Dec 22 and Dec 26 for vessels heading south, according to Clarksons.

For companies that have cargo on detouring ships, the clamber to track new arrival times is under way.

“That’s happening en masse on every ship that got diverted,” Flexport CEO Ryan Petersen said last week. “Teams are working overtime right now to try to keep up with this.”

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