Reflagging or dual registration of British-registered vessels passing through the crowded waterway may not be the solution in a time of rising international tensions
From my time as a Royal Navy officer navigating the busy shipping lanes of the Strait of Hormuz, I recognise the challenges of operating in this chokepoint.
Each day, many of the largest ships in the world sail at speed through the two-mile-wide (3.2-kilometre) traffic separation lanes, while a multitude of smaller trading and fishing dhows travel in all directions and swarms of speedboats (many apparently engaged in smuggling) cut close ahead and astern of larger vessels.
To add to this complex navigational picture, simmering international tensions leave crews constantly trying to determine whether any of the many contacts are a risk to their vessel.
Second Royal Navy ship arrives in Gulf to escort UK shipping
There is something of an impasse in the situation in the strait, with the 49,700-dwt Stena Impero (built 2018) having been seized by Iran and the 300,600-dwt Grace 1 (built 1997) still detained by Gibraltar.
But the situation has not improved, bearing in mind the number of warships that Britain’s Royal Navy can sustain on escort duties and the political tensions demonstrated by earlier attacks on vessels in the Strait of Hormuz.
Discretion is the better part of valour
Some owners and operators have already decided that discretion is the better part of valour, and they are not offering their vessels for employment that will require passage of the strait.
However, those with contracts of affreightment to service or other charter commitments to or from ports in the Middle East Gulf need to examine their options carefully.
HMS Montrose is one of only two UK warships protecting British ships transiting the Strait of Hormuz Photo: Wikipedia
Since six tankers were attacked in May and June, the question of whether an owner could refuse to comply with a charterer’s orders because compliance would require passage of the strait has been widely covered.
Strait of Hormuz redesignation could hike crew wages
At the time of writing, and subject to the drafting of the particular charter, the common view, whether under a war risks clause, unsafe port or by frustration, is: probably not.
The attacks in May and June had a broader international dimension. But the experiences of the Stena Impero and the 158,000-dwt British Heritage and 315,800-dwt Mesdar (both built 2017), which were approached by Iranian armed speedboats in international waters in the Strait of Hormuz last month, represent a targeting of vessels with UK connections — either a British flag or manager.
A number of owners/operators of UK-flag vessels that are required to sail through the strait have been considering their choice of flag, including whether it is possible to operate temporarily under a different flag.
A vessel cannot sail under the flag of more than one state at a time.
However, by registering a bareboat charter of the vessel with a different flag (sometimes referred to as “dual registration”), it is possible to suspend the British flag so the vessel will fly the flag of the other state for the term of the bareboat charter.
For some owners, this may offer a suitable means of reducing a perceived temporary, heightened risk associated with the UK flag. It is not, however, a “one size fits all” solution.
The owner (and the bareboat charterer) will have to satisfy the preconditions of both ship registers, which will include obtaining the prior consent of any mortgagee of the vessel.
Additionally, the owner will need to consider the impact that suspending the British flag might have on its ability to take advantage of certain tonnage tax regimes.
Furthermore, events in the strait have demonstrated an alarming willingness by Iran to interfere with vessels on innocent passage, and owners will have to question the practical benefit of changing flag by way of bareboat charter registration.
Also, in some instances, third parties can readily discover the underlying flag by paying a fee to the bareboat charter registry.
The UK Ministry of Defence says “the Royal Navy has been tasked to accompany British-flagged ships through the Strait of Hormuz … should sufficient notice be given of their passage”. The warships HMS Montrose and HMS Duncan are now protecting British vessels transiting the waterway.
In some quarters, this might be seen as closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. However, the intervention by the HMS Montrose while escorting the British Heritage last month demonstrated the value of an effective naval escort.
Not all flag states will be able to provide naval escorts to vessels flying their flag.
Given the broader international character of previous attacks, the potential for tensions in the region to escalate and the Royal Navy tasking (if it can be maintained), owners and operators of UK-flag vessels may conclude that the risk of sailing through the strait under the British flag does not, on balance, justify reflagging their vessels.
22.07.2019 2300 UTC
Posn: 01:04.15N – 103:54.20E,
PT Dharma Sentosa Marindo Yard, Batam, Indonesia.
Four robbers in a boat approached and boarded a berthed offshore tug. Second mate on routine rounds noticed footprints on the main deck. Further checks revealed a storeroom padlock broken. Alarm raised and crew mustered. Vessel’s properties were reported stolen. The following day at 2100 UTC, a suspicious boat came alongside the tug with two persons onboard. One of them was armed with a knife. Alert crew raised the alarm resulting in the boat moving away. Incident reported to PFSO and Yard Manager.
27.07.2019 1955 UTC
Posn: 01:45.5N – 101:22.0E,
SDS Terminal, ST 01, Lubuk Gaung, Indonesia.
Four armed robbers boarded a berthed tanker during cargo operations. Alert crew noticed the robbers near the engine room and raised the alarm. Upon hearing the alarm and seeing the crew alertness, the robbers escaped through the steering gear room. A search was carried out. It was reported that engine spares were stolen. Incident reported to the PFSO.
Stena Bulk has raised concerns about the health of the seafarers on board a tanker captured by Iran at a time when oil major BP has confirmed it is avoiding the Strait of Hormuz trouble-spot.
Iranian forces abseiled from a helicopter onto the 50,00-dwt Stena Impero (built 2018) and took control of the ship 11 days ago and have been holding it at Bandar Abbas.
There are 23 crew on board from India, Russia and Philippines, with Embassy officials from each country boarding the vessel this weekend.
However, the shipowner has stressed the importance of its own access to the tanker given Iranian claims of a collision with a fishing vessel and the welfare of those on board.
“We are concerned about the potential impact a prolonged period of uncertainty will have on the welfare of both crew and their families,” Stena Bulk said in its latest update on the situation.
“Our colleagues on the Stena Impero were carrying out their profession as merchant seafarers and do not deserve to be in this position.”
“As previously stated, from the information we have, there is no current evidence the ship has breached any maritime rules or regulations, and we stand behind the professionalism and conduct of the crew of the Stena Impero.”
BP Shipping had its own close call with Iranian forces earlier this month.
Three Iranian Revolutionary Guards boats approached the 158,000-dwt British Heritage (built 2017) in the Middle East Gulf.
While a British warship fended off the hostilities, BP has since kept its own ships out of the area, according to chief financial officer Brian Gilvary.
“We will continue to make shipments through there but you won’t see any BP-flagged tankers going through in the short term,” he said, according to Reuters.
BP is not the only shipping company which is reluctant to operate in the troubled area.
Peter Livanos company GasLog said last week its ships were avoiding the Strait of Hormuz.
Warships from three nations have taken part in a counter-piracy surge operation, led by Combined Task Force (CTF) 151 in the Gulf of Aden. The operation was part of the Republic of Korea-led CTF 151’s mission to deter piracy and to contribute to wider maritime security in the region by focusing shared resources and assets over a prolonged period.
Collaboration between CTF 151, EUNAVFOR’s counter-piracy Task Force and the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force ensured maximum response and support to the operation. A Japanese Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance Aircraft also took part.
The ships ROKS Daejoyeong, ESPS Navarra and JS Asagiri worked together in conducting Maritime Awareness Calls to engage with local mariners and increase their understanding of the Combined Maritime Forces and CTF 151 role.
Captain Andrew Rose, Royal Navy, Deputy Commander of CTF151, said: “Operations such as this help to build partnerships and interoperability among the various stakeholders involved in counter-piracy. It also helps to build friendships and understanding amongst mariners to increase maritime security and suppress piracy.”
The long term aims of counter-piracy stakeholders are to deter and disrupt piracy by working together; to enhance information sharing and to engage with regional partners, the merchant shipping community and local mariners.
Source: Combined Maritime Forces
The ReCAAP ISC published the Guidance on Abduction of Crew in the Sulu-Celebes Seas and Waters off Eastern Sabah. Between 2016 and 2019, a total of 29 incidents of abduction of crew, consisting of 18 actual incidents and 11 attempted incidents, were reported to ReCAAP ISC.
In light of the current threat of abduction of crew in the area, ReCAAP ISC made this Guidance to help the shipping industry and ships improve their situational awareness and avoid such incidents.
The Guidance consists of advisory on the measures to be taken by the ships transiting the area, including contact details and the Notice to Mariners (NOTAM) issued by the Philippines and Malaysia. It also shares the analysis of incidents based on the information collected from past incidents.
From the 18 actual incidents, 75 crew were abducted in total. Among them, 65 crew were released or rescued, and 10 crew were killed or died. As of now, there is no crew in captivity. In order to prevent such incidents, on 14 July 2016, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines signed the Trilateral Cooperative Arrangement (TCA) to address the security challenges in the maritime areas of common concern.
The three countries agreed to encourage the operationalization of the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for maritime patrol, and the operating guidelines on information and intelligence sharing; and combined communication plan.
For this reason, the three countries established the Maritime Command Centres (MCCs) in Tarankan (Indonesia), Tawau (Malaysia) and Bongao (Philippines). The MCCs serve as the operational command and monitoring stations for the respective countries.
Under the TCA, the Philippines and Malaysia established the transit corridors within the Area of Maritime Interest (AMI) which covers the common maritime areas. The transit corridors serve as safety areas to passage by commercial ships and they are patrolled by the three countries.
Before entering the designated transit corridors
Commercial vessels are encouraged to pass through the designated transit corridors and sea lanes, as specified in the Notice to Mariners (NOTAMs) issued by the Philippines and Malaysia.
All ships transiting the areas must report to the Centres at least 24 hours before arrival at the designated maritime areas of common concern, with complete ship’s routing information.
All ships are required to render Position Report (POSREP) and Situation Report (SITREP) as they enter the maritime areas of common concern every hour or as necessary.
Recommended Transit Corridor (RTC) in the Moro Gulf and Basilan by the Philippines
To mitigate an increasing threat to shipping in the areas of Moro Gulf and Basilan Strait, Recommended Transit Corridor (RTC) was set out to prevent and suppress acts of piracy and armed robbery against ships transiting the areas.
The RTC provides PCG and other law enforcement units’ awareness over the operating environment in and around the areas of Moro Gulf and Basilan Strait by designating transit areas where ships can be easily monitored and law enforcement units are deployed nearby.
The RTC between the Moro Gulf and Basilan Strait was established by the “Memorandum Circular 2017-002” issued by the Philippine’s Department of Transportation on 31 March 2017 (Annex 3).
A second Royal Navy warship arrived in the Gulf of Oman to protect British ships during increasing tensions in the area. HMS Duncan has now joined frigate HMS Montrose to accompany ships sailing under the UK flag through the Strait of Hormuz
Until now, HMS Montrose has escorted 35 ship, the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) said. In addition, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace wants the UK to seek a diplomatic resolution to the situation. He explained that freedom of navigation in the Strait of Hormuz is crucial not just to the UK, but for its international partners and allies.
For this reason, the Royal Navy will be protecting UK vessels, until such a reality is ensured.
As for the HMS Duncan, it is a Type 45 Destroyer, considered to be one of the most advanced warships ever built.
Overall, the tension in Strait of Hormuz peaked after Iran seized Stena Impero, leading a part of the shipping sector addressing that this was an act of retaliation and an act against international shipping laws.
What is more, British Royal Marines captured an oil tanker in Gibraltar on June 27, after being accused of bringing oil to Syria, thus breaching EU sanctions. In addition, the Royal Gibraltar Police has arrested the Indian Captain and Chief Officer of the Iranian tanker ‘Grace 1’, a few days after the ship was seized suspected of breaching EU sanctions by shipping oil to Syria.
The Italian Rear Admiral Armando Paolo Simi takes command of EU NAVFOR’s 32nd Force Headquarters
Djibouti, 23 July 2019—In a handover/takeover ceremony this morning on board the EU NAVFOR Somalia Operation ATALANTA warship ESPS NAVARRA, EU NAVFOR Deputy Operation Commander Rear Admiral Giovanni Battista Piegaja welcomed the operation’s new Force Commander, Rear Admiral Simi and his Flag Ship the ITS MARCEGLIA as the new Force Headquarters (FHQ) for the 32nd rotation of Operation ATALANTA.
EU NAVFOR also welcomed the ESPS CANARIAS as a new addition to the 32nd rotation of Operation ATALANTA. Both vessels will sail with Operation ATALANTA from the end of July 2019 until early November 2019, countering piracy and monitoring fishing activity off the Somali coast under the mandate of the European Union.
The Force Command of Operation ATALANTA was transferred to R. Adm. Simi today from R. Adm. Ricardo HERNANDEZ (Spanish Navy). Last April, under R. Adm. Hernandez’s command, EU NAVFOR’s ESPS NAVARRA was able to approach, intercept and board a fishing vessel captured by pirates off the Somali coast. With the support of the private armed security teams and EU NAVFOR’s various active assets in the region—including the frigate ESPS NAVARRA and MPRAs German JESTER and Spanish CISNE—Operation Atalanta was able to control the situation and prevent any further imminent attacks.
Operation ATALANTA’s new Deputy Operation Commander Rear Admiral Giovanni Battista Piegaja delivered a speech during today’s ceremony in which he thanked R. Adm. Hernandez for his diligent service, and congratulated and welcomed R. Adm. Simi.
“The EU flag has been flying for more than 10 years in the Western Indian Ocean with all of us present here today, working together to uphold Freedom of Navigation and Maritime Security,” he said.
The European Union (EU) Ambassador in Djibouti Adam Kulach, local Djiboutian authorities and international partners in Djibouti all attended the ceremony. EU Common Security and Defence representatives also took the ceremony as an opportunity to award two Djiboutian officers, a Colonel and a Capitaine with CSDP Service Medals for their exceptional job in support of Operation Atalanta. The sterling support provided to the Operation from the Djiboutian authorities and the French Forces Stationed at Djibouti (FFDJ) continues to act as a force multiplier reinforcing the success of the mission in the region.
EU NAVFOR has designed a Cooperation Concept for Atalanta (COCOA), which aims to increase synergies with regional states and military actors present and complement each other’s efforts in a pragmatic, flexible but predictable way. EU NAVFOR and its international partners—such as the Combined Maritime Forces and other independent deployers—has reduced the impact of piracy in off the Horn of Africa to a minimum. EU NAVFOR remains committed to deterring, preventing and suppressing piracy and emphasizes that the Maritime Industry must adhere to BMP measures in order to maximize the safety of the ship and their crews whilst transiting the high-risk area.
The tensions in the Strait of Hormuz, following Iran seizing the British-flagged Stena Impero, are in the spotlight as the whole shipping industry waits for any updates on the situation. The Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs published a statement, highlighting the importance of the immediate release of the crewmembers and the continuation of the seized vessel’s journey.
According to the Ministry’s statement, as a seafaring country, Greece supports a free navigation on a global scale, with no barriers and no danger for crews and vessels.
“Actions against the freedom of navigation, as enshrined in international law, cannot but be condemned. The immediate release of the crew and the unimpeded continuation of “STENA IMPERO’s” journey is expected, as a demonstration of respect for the provisions of international law.”
Overall, the tension in Strait of Hormuz peaked after the UK arrested the Indian Captain and Chief Officer of the Iranian tanker ‘Grace 1’, a few days after the ship was seized suspected of breaching EU sanctions by shipping oil to Syria.
Following this event, Iran seized Stena Impero, leading a part of the shipping sector addressing that this was an act of retaliation and an act against international shipping laws.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif commented on Iran seizing the British vessel that
“Iran took measures against a ship in the Strait of Hormuz to implement international law, not in retaliation to actions by Britain.”
For the time being, there are no developments concerning the freeing of the vessel or its crew, and the shipping industry stands by, looking for solutions in this problem.
Stena Bulk confirms direct communication with Stena Impero crew
Stena Bulk confirms that they communicated with the crew of the Iranian-seized Stena Impero. This follows the company’s decision on asking permission from the Iranian authorities to visit the crew members.
According to the statement, the Master advised the company that everyone was safe with good cooperation with the Iranian personnel onboard.
Erik Hanell, President and CEO, Stena Bulk informed
“We do of course appreciate this step of development and that this is a first sign that we will soon see more positive progress from the Iranian authorities.”
The family members of the crew are being updated on the development and will keep on having the company’s support.
“We will continue to provide updates as the situation develops.”
France, Italy and Denmark are supporting an UK plan for a European-led naval mission to ensure safe transits through the Strait of Hormuz, after Iran seized a British-flagged tanker, according to three senior EU diplomats.
According to Reuters, this cautious support contrasts the warm response by European allies to a similar American call. However, an EU diplomat said that the UK’s proposal will be much easier for the rest of Europe to rally round it. What is more, the plan would not involve the EU, NATO or the US directly.
Except for this idea, British foreign ministry and defense officials have also discussed about a possible mission, which would involve not just ships but aircrafts too, directly with their Italian, Spanish, French and German counterparts.
Moreover, a German diplomat pointed out that Foreign Minister Heiko Maas is in close contact with his British and French counterparts, in order to contribute to the security of the Gulf, including maritime security.
In addition, the Netherlands as well is assessing the British proposal, while a Spanish official informed that the country is talking with London, studying the idea.
As for Iran, it has rejected the proposal and says foreign powers should leave the safety pf shipping lanes to Tehran and others in the region.