The Dutch salvage firm that helped prevent a global freight bottleneck when it dislodged a massive container ship stuck in the Suez Canal is fighting the vessel’s owners in a London court, claiming they were denied a proper payout.
Teams from SMIT Salvage BV were rushed to the Suez Canal to help refloat the Ever Given and free the critical waterway in the spring of 2021. The firm, known for flying employees from one shipping crisis to the next, argued this week that the ship’s Japanese owners are preventing them for claiming a higher salvage award.
SMIT, a unit of Royal Boskalis Westminster NV, had agreed a contract, which precludes them claiming an “opportunistic” salvage award potentially around ten times higher than that, lawyers for Higaki Sangyo Kaisha Ltd. said in a court filing.
About 12% of global trade goes through the Suez Canal, making it so strategic that world powers have fought over the waterway since it was completed in 1869. The blockage caused a backlog of more than 400 ships, with many re-routing round the Cape of Good Hope, adding at least a week to their voyages.
SMIT was first called on March 23, just hours after the Ever Given ran hard aground on the east bank of the canal early that morning. They chartered two high-powered tugs and discussed shifting the amount of water in the Ever Given’s ballast tanks to boost the vessel’s buoyancy and help lift it off the bank. The ship was finally pulled clear on the afternoon of March 29.
The tugs were still connected to the vessel’s stern and were in danger of being pulled under as the ship gathered speed, according to a court filing. They had to be released quickly by the salvage team, by cutting the wires.
Lawyers for the owners said SMIT could be seeking an award of around $35 million based on the amount of security for their claim. It was shortly after the Ever Given was refloated that SMIT discussed what the lawyers called a “strategy change.”
A WhatsApp message on March 29 introduced by the same lawyers records a SMIT official saying: “Hm, playing with a salvage claim thought…”
In its filing, Higaki Sangyo downplayed SMIT’s “minimal” role, saying that the Suez Canal Authority were in control of the operation.
SMIT is synonymous with some of the most daring naval salvages, including lifting a sunken Russian nuclear submarine in 2001, and removing fuel from inside the Costa Concordia cruise ship after it ran aground in Italy in 2012.
Higaki Sangyo warned of “potentially serious” implications if SMIT was successful, saying that a rescue term could agree on commercial terms with a shipowner only to make a salvage claim later.