Iran nabbing tankers in the Gulf. Vessels changing flags to avoid being targeted. Western powers deploying warships to protect them. This was the scene in the late 1980s, in what became known as the Tanker War. While there’s no brutal Iran-Iraq conflict as a backdrop this time around, there are some worrying similarities.
The latest flare-up began when the UK detained the Grace 1 off Gibraltar. It reached its apogee when two British tankers were seized by the IRGC on July 19. The Mesdar was quickly released. The Stena Impero, at the time of writing, remains at anchor in Bandar Abbas.
This series of escalating events signals major potential risks for shipowners, charterers and insurers. The UK government has already advised tankers to avoid the Strait of Hormuz – effectively stopping operations in the area, as it’s the only way into the Persian Gulf (at least until someone builds a canal to bypass it). The enhanced presence of the Royal Navy can only help so much at this point, as its operations are focused on deterrence rather than the protection of specific ships, aka convoys.
And so the shipping industry has had to take matters into its own hands. Vessels have already begun adjusting their operations to mitigate emerging security risks and maintain business as usual, finding new – and sometimes creative – ways to reduce their exposure to the prevailing threat. But there are tradeoffs, especially in terms of maritime safety:
1. Avoiding Iranian waters
The most visible change we’ve seen is vessels trying to avoid Iran. The problem here is that the established shipping lanes – aka Traffic Separation Schemes (TSS) – lie west of the Strait; both of them cross Iran’s Territorial Waters, in some places less than 10NM from the country’s shore. Given this situation, more and more tankers are seen deviating from these shipping lanes which, much like traffic lanes on land, are designed to prevent collisions.
The image below shows the route taken by a UK-owned tanker just two days before the Stena Impero was seized. Probably aware of the danger, she detoured around the TSS to stick to Emirati waters. But was this the right course of action? “TSS is regulated by the Rules of the Road,” says Master Mariner, Lars H. Bergqvist, “and there are rules how a ship shall navigate in them. Just to avoid Iranian waters is not a reason to break the rules. TSS is there for a reason, and if ships are avoiding the scheme the risk of collisions will obviously increase.”
Overall, tanker traffic through the TSSs dropped 22% in less than a month, from some 60 vessels a day to fewer than 50. At the same time, traffic through UAE waters is intensifying, raising concerns this is coming at the cost of a greater risk of collision.
2. ‘Dark’ passage
Another emerging pattern is an increase in vessels trying to avoid detection by Iran by crossing the Strait of Hormuz with their AIS transmissions switched off. Take the image below: it shows three Saudi-flagged tankers managed by the same company “going dark” when approaching Iran – then “reappearing” once outside Iranian waters. For these Saudi vessels, this pattern of behavior actually began in late May, shortly after two Saudi tankers were sabotaged near Fujairah. Yet doing so creates clear concerns about maritime safety, as it also increases the risk of collision. “The Gulf area is congested with large tankers,” says Marius Schønberg, Vice President at Gard AS. “Therefore navigation safety is a major concern. We encourage our members to follow ordinary navigation lanes and keep AIS on, but do a proper voyage risk assessment in accordance with the guidance in BMP 5.”
Then there’s sanctions. Ships turning off transmissions in the region today may attract unwanted – and unwarranted – suspicions that they are attempting to conceal sanctions evasion with Iran. This could lead to unnecessary due diligence by counterparties, and even reduce business opportunities – ironically putting innocent vessels in the same boat as those in cahoots with Iran. “If ships are going to switch off AIS,” says Bergqvist, “there must be a guideline from the industry, and preferably an international agreement, so you are not stopped by coastal states if you transit there waters without transmitting AIS signals.”
3.The Need for Speed
In some cases, and as advised by OCIMF and INTERTANKO, tankers are now significantly increasing their speed while crossing the Strait of Hormuz. In the case of the LNG tanker in the image below, after waiting a few days immediately after the Stena Impero was seized, it began sailing through the Strait of Hormuz at a speed of 20-22 Knots – very close to its top speed, and 30-40% faster than its usual speed for sailing through the strait.
Faster sailing, of course, brings with it a number of safety concerns. As Marius Schønberg, Vice President at Gard AS, puts it: “High-speed navigation in the Strait of Hormuz is a different way of operation than normal, and it is alarming as the consequences in case of an incident at high speeds are much greater.”
During the “Tanker Wars” of the 1980s, Kuwaiti ships taking Iraqi oil out through the Strait of Hormuz changed their names and began flying the U.S. Flag. This allowed U.S. warships to accompany them, to ensure their safety. Tankers traveled in convoys for extra protection.
From this vantage point, things don’t look anywhere near as bad as they were – or would become – back then. But while the risk of military confrontation is much diminished, the tactics employed by the vessels themselves – sailing faster, avoiding shipping lanes or going dark – are reducing maritime safety and increasing the risk of collision. Which begs an important question that shipowners must now wrestle with: is it ever acceptable to compromise on maritime safety in the name of security?