Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Maritime Union Report on the Dangers Seafarers Face on Ships in the Persian Gulf

First Hand Report on Transiting the Strait of Hormuz in a Merchant Vessel
Shipping News Feature
PERSIAN GULF – As with the case of piracy in the waters off the Somali Coast, nothing brings the realities of dangers at sea whilst transiting the seas in the region like the first-hand accounts of those who have experienced the terrors of passing through the Strait of Hormuz whilst anticipating an attack from armed forces.

With security levels raised by the British government following the seizure of the UK-flagged tanker Stena Impero the focus of the maritime unions has been on the welfare of their members and now Nautilus International, the trade union for maritime professionals, has released the testimony of one of its members, via a report by Helen Kelly, illustrating the circumstances faced by seafarers in the region.

Captain X, his identity has naturally been withheld due to security concerns in naming the vessel, crew or company. July 2019 was a normal month just like any other for the captain who has overseen large tankers ferrying gas from Middle Eastern production hubs for many years. The big ships kept up the steady flow of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to energy-hungry consumers in Asia and Europe with barely a blip in their well-honed routine.

Except of course for the newly acquired private security guards on board, armed to the teeth with semi-automatic weapons, and the short pause in transit just after the Strait of Hormuz to check if any mines had been attached to the ship's hull.

Following a transit through the Suez Canal, described by Captain X as ‘nightmarish, with the pilots probably being the most difficult we have contact with', the three security personnel boarded on the south side of the canal before the tanker rendezvoused with a floating armoury in the Red Sea to collect munitions for the guards.

On entering the High-Risk Area (HRA) the guards took turns on watch but then disembarked as the ship left the HRA and passed into the Gulf of Oman. This left the ship, with its crew of thirty souls made up of six nationalities on their own from the Gulf of Oman to the Strait of Hormuz and through the Persian Gulf to the loading port, the exact area where the Marshall Islands-flagged oil tanker Front Altair and Panamanian-flagged Kokuka Courageous were attacked in June.

Despite weekly security updates from such as the UK's Warlike Operations Area Committee (WOAC), the first news of problems usually comes via international news agencies such as America's CNN or the UK's BBC. One can only imagine the emotions of captain and crew when under the imminent danger of attack, seizure and arrest by Iranian and other regional forces.

Nautilus makes the point that, as ever, there is a perceived commercial pressure from the operating company to ensure each charter is completed, something that Captain X confirmed, saying that nobody on board is ever asked if they agree to continue the voyage, nor do they receive any extra payment for transiting the Warlike Area or designated High Risk Areas.

Under the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC), seafarers who do not want to go to a war zone for which the ship is bound should be repatriated by the ship owner at no cost to themselves. The Gulf of Oman has not yet been classified as a war zone. The Union is lobbying for it to be classified as a 'Warlike Zone' by the WOAC, which consists of UK Chamber of Shipping, Nautilus International and RMT.

Captain X believes the crew would never refuse to transit a Warlike Area, as they are afraid of being blacklisted, even although blacklisting is forbidden under the MLC. On the last voyage he says stress levels increased when they were told to ‘harden’ vessel defences, this included putting razor wire around the deck areas and deploying water cannons for protection against illegal boarding, again a parallel of the Somali pirate scenario.

Fresh instructions included orders to proceed at full speed from the Gulf of Oman, through the Strait of Hormuz into the Persian Gulf and reporting in to the operating company's headquarters and The Royal Navy-operated United Kingdom Marine Trade Operations, (UKMTO), to confirm the vessel was OK whilst transiting the area of Hormuz.

Captain X describes seeing lots of coalition warships in the area asking ships to report any unusual activity via radio communications. Moments of black humour surfaced while listening to the Iranian Navy asking US warships to divulge fleet numbers and details, including whether they have helicopters and submarines in tow.

The four vessel attacks of Fujairah prompted the Joint War Committee (JWC) in London to extend the list of waters termed 'high risk' to include Oman, the United Arab Emirates and the Persian Gulf in late May. This meant Captain X is required to report to the vessel's insurance provider when it enters an area ranging from Hormuz to territorial waters of the load port. This is in addition to the previous areas identified by JWC.

Captain X has, unsurprisingly, come to the conclusion that the best way to ensure safe transit is exactly what has worked in the Indian Ocean, increased close protection by a combined task force of naval vessels.

There are of course differences between the two scenarios. Whilst in Somalia we saw gangs of disenfranchised pirates acting either on their own initiative, or as part of an organised group, the conflict in the Persian Gulf and beyond is a conflict of nations, with potentially world altering effects.

Captain X, along with Nautilus, is asking that a diplomatic dialogue continues in a bid to resolve the situation, whilst asking for the commitment of significant naval resources in the region to protect British ships and seafarers, and to reduce risks in other areas of the world. Nautilus General Secretary Mark Dickinson further underlined the importance of multinational cooperation in the region, with many Nautilus members working on ships flying non-British flags.

Captain X meanwhile was waiting to load yet another high-value energy cargo, this time bound for the Far East when he unsurprisingly commented:

”If given a choice I would not sail on board a vessel transiting the Arabian Gulf or the Strait of Hormuz at this time.”

Photo: Iranian gunboats on patrol.