We hadn’t seen each other for a while, and after catching up on personal and general stuff, we started talking about shipping. The story he told me has stayed with me ever since.
My friend has a supramax bulk carrier, and very recently the ship was sailing through the Red Sea en route from the east Mediterranean to India, with a complement of armed guards on board just in case. The name on the bows and the stern had been painted over, and the usual precautions had been taken to protect the vessel during its passage through the danger area. Such are the times we now live in.
At some point the officers saw four armed drones approach the vessel, and after flying around the ship – checking the name and the markings, as well as what type of ship it was – two of the drones left leaving the remaining two to escort the vessel for four hours just forward of the bow, and then as suddenly as they arrived, they disappeared. The officers kept a keen lookout, and then after a while, far way in the offing they saw the flash of a missile. It was bound for another ship. A tanker. My friend’s ship didn’t hang around to find out more and carried on sailing. It wasn’t until they had put some considerable distance between themselves and Yemen that the high level of alert was relaxed.
Maersk Lines, MSC and Hapag Lloyd container vessels – huge ships – have been fired on in recent days, and they together with other container lines including CMA-GM are now diverting their ships away from the trouble. After the latest attacks it should come as no surprise that many owners are reconsidering whether they should be passing the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden at all.
Even though there are widespread rumours that the US Navy is close to forming an international coalition that would ensure there are enough ships to escort merchant traffic, this remains a very serious situation, with the risk of escalation high. Ships, their crews, cargoes – wet or dry, polluting or harmless – international non-aligned flagged ships are being threatened indiscriminately in reaction to a conflict that has nothing to do with them. This lawless targeting of ships is also encouraging other lawlessness, with reports of Somali pirates taking advantage of the situation and beginning to attack merchant ships again.
This is all widely reported with a mixture of fear and excitement, and as we wait for the next attack I wonder where this is all going. Freedom of navigation for commercial vessels is essential for the world to keep working as it does, and yet these latest developments are moving us further into – literally – unchartered waters, in contravention of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea as well as the many treaties from long ago, drawn up in different times, which remain in effect to ensure the passage of innocent vessels through potential trouble spots. Ships flying the flags of countries with no connections to the countries involved in either of the major conflicts are potential targets.
I was about to use the word ‘neutral’ in terms of the flags that ships fly, but I hesitate to do so. That dread and outdated phrase ‘flag of convenience’ will no doubt be dragged out by uninformed media outlets trying to explain the interests behind the ownership of different vessels. It’s complicated for sure: the Liberian and Marshall Island flags are administered out of the US, almost certainly an excuse that the US government has latched onto to impose sanctions on ships carrying Russian oil sold at a price above the cap set by the G7. For their part, the Houthi rebels have also done their homework, and proved adept to start with at attacking and targeting ships controlled by Israeli interests, even though legally the ships themselves are registered and controlled in other jurisdictions. That seems to have changed now.
But what are the targets now? Large container ships with no obvious connection to Israel. Tankers with absolutely no connection whatsoever with Israel – loading or discharging, let alone ownership – maybe just because they are tankers.
I suspect that there is underneath all this a strategy to keep the oil price high, and trying to increase the costs of consumer goods by sending them the long way around to Europe to keep inflation high, and therefore western economies under threat. This is a very sorry echo of a combination of the first oil shock in late 1973 when the oil embargo against those countries that had supported Israel during the Yom Kippur War and the closure of the Suez Canal at various points – either intentionally or otherwise – since the mid-50s.
If this is the case, this strategy is unlikely to succeed for many reasons. Firstly despite the current fragmented nature of geopolitics the world remains far more interconnected than it was then. Secondly, the major central banks’ monetary policies have far more fire power to create and decrease inflation than the restriction of navigation in the geographical choke points around the world. Thirdly, such are the economies of scale in shipping these days – and so small is the proportion of freight in the final delivered cost of cargo – that even a doubling or trebling of freight rates would have a negligible effect on inflation in the long run, especially with prices for crude oil and other raw materials – not to mention finished consumer goods, or semi-finished industrial components – being as high as they are. Finally, as has been surely proven by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the thing about ships is that they are mobile and flexible – and there are a lot of them – so shifts in source of supply can be adopted quickly. The predicted European gas crisis never really materialised.
It seems that the only immediate beneficiaries – and a grim windfall it is – are ship owners themselves who will always benefit when the supply of ships is restricted, cyclically or geographically, when freight rates climb as charterers try secure transport for their cargoes.
But this in almost irrelevant. Shipowners – despite popular opinion – are not in control of their markets, let alone the geopolitical tensions making themselves felt across the world. But they are in control of their ships, and they employ people, real human beings with families, and stories, and lives as valuable as anyone else’s, on board, on shore, or a mixture of both.
Imagine being on board that bulk carrier, proceeding at a sluggish speed down the southern Red Sea into the Indian Ocean, being shadowed by armed drones. Imagine holding your breath for four hours after these almost alien eyes inspect your ship from the air – being controlled by people who do not have your health and wellbeing as their top priority – and then escorting you – whether you like it or not. Imagine making sure you do nothing to provoke their deadly sting by any sudden or rash manoeuvres, but also not being able to escape them. Can you imagine the stress, the worry, the fear? I cannot. And I remind you that these are civilian seafarers, not military ones, who just have the misfortune of being on the wrong ship in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I have written before about the threat to civilian shipping in time of war and sadly nothing that has happened in the interim has lessened my dread, or decreased my concern. But the story that my friend told me – with it’s weird mixture of science fiction, video game sensibilities and banal, sweaty human fear – reignited that apprehension anew. The disregard for the safety of human life at sea is increasing at an exponential trajectory as the geopolitical map heats up. And this is not a game.
Life at sea is hard enough: away from home for long periods of time, at the mercy of the elements, boredom and psychological stress on the most mundane of voyages, and this is in peacetime. Add to this the threat of becoming collateral damage by forces that consider all merchant shipping to be a legitimate target. Add to this sailing through waters where US and UK naval forces have shot down at least fifteen of these deadly drones – thankfully with no danger to ships and crew – knowing that there are still missiles ashore with a capacity to attack any vessel within range.
Apart from the old familiar traditional Christmas carols I will listen to this festive season, I shall hum to myself excerpts of another less festive hymn: