Health and safety

Caught in the crossfire – a shipmaster’s story from the Strait of Hormuz

23 July 2019

With Iran’s detention of the UK-flagged tanker Stena Impero prompting the British government to raise its security to Level 3 in the Persian Gulf and advise against all travel in the Strait of Hormuz, a Nautilus member spoke of their recent experience of transiting the Strait. The member’s identity has been withheld due to security concerns in naming the vessel, crew or company. Helen Kelly reports

July 2019 was a normal month just like any other for Captain X, 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 for the newly acquired private security guards onboard, armed to the teeth with semi-automated 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.

Captain X had just arrived back in the Persian Gulf, site of the world's largest LNG exporting facility. To get there they transited the Suez Canal, a 'nightmarish' journey with 'the pilots probably being the most difficult we have contact with'.

Three private security guards were boarded in Suez at the south side of the canal. The massive tanker then made a rendezvous with a floating armoury in the Red Sea to take on weapons for use by the guards.

The armed guards performed bridge lookout duties from the start of the designated High-Risk Area (HRA) in the Red Sea. They disembarked as the vessel exited the HRA close to the Gulf of Oman.

The crew of 30 made up of six nationalities were basically on their own from the Gulf of Oman to the Strait of Hormuz and through the Persian Gulf to the load port – the exact area where the Marshall Islands-flagged oil tanker Front Altair and Panamanian-flagged Kokuka Courageous were blown up in June.

While Captain X gets weekly updates from security agencies, including WOAC, the crew usually hears about it first from international news agencies such as America's CNN or the UK's BBC.

Captain X doubts the crew would ever refuse to transit a Warlike Area, as they are afraid of being blacklisted – even although blacklisting is forbidden under the MLC
Stressful and scary

Captain X describes transiting the Gulf of Oman as 'stressful' and 'scary'. The international crew are acutely aware of the imminent danger of attack, seizure and arrest by Iranian and other regional forces.

There is perceived commercial pressure from the operating company to ensure each charter is completed, Captain X says. The crew do not receive any extra payment for transiting the Warlike Area or designated High Risk Areas. They have not been asked if they agree to continue onboard.

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 shipowner 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 UK's Warlike Operations Area Committee (WOAC), which consists of UK Chamber of Shipping, Nautilus International and RMT.

Captain X doubts the crew would ever refuse to transit a Warlike Area, as they are afraid of being blacklisted – even although blacklisting is forbidden under the MLC.

The stress involved in this most recent transit was made worse by last-minute instructions from security agencies to increase manning on the bridge and to introduce increased 'hardening', Captain X says. That included putting razor wire around the deck areas and deploying water cannons for protection against illegal boarding.

The crew were ordered to proceed at full speed from the Gulf of Oman, through the Strait of Hormuz into the Persian Gulf.

The captain was also ordered to call 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.

In late May the Joint War Committee (JWC) in London extended the list of waters termed 'high risk' to include Oman, the United Arab Emirates and the Persian Gulf after attacks on four vessels off Fujairah.

That means 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. It adds to the volume of paperwork he has to deal with.  

International cooperation

Captain X reckons close protection by International naval forces and continued diplomatic dialogue would improve safety for Merchant Navy crew transiting the Gulf of Oman and other High-Risk Areas.

Those sentiments are backed by Nautilus, which has lobbied the UK government to commit 'significant naval resources' to the region to protect British ships and seafarers, and to reduce risks in other areas of the world.

General secretary Mark Dickinson underlined the importance of multinational cooperation in the region, with many Nautilus members working on ships flying non-British flags.

Now waiting to load yet another high-value energy cargo, this time bound for the Far East, Captain X says: 'If given a choice I would not sail onboard a vessel transiting the Arabian Gulf or the Strait of Hormuz at this time.' His wish is that international diplomacy will resolve the political tensions quickly, so that future generations of seafarers do not have to risk their lives to feed their families.