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Wednesday, November 13, 2019
Sea Breezes, October 2019

‘Dire Straits’

Back in July many of the world’s media were reporting in their headlines the seizure by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard of two UK-flagged oil tankers in the Gulf, as recounted in last month’s edition of the magazine.

To summarise events, the guards surrounded the Stena Impero – which has a 23-man crew and was on passage between the United Arab Emirates and the port of Al Jubail in Saudi Arabia – and simultaneously lowered troops onto the deck and forced the master to sail to Iran. This was despite the attempted intervention of the Royal Navy’s Type 23 frigate, HMS Montrose, which unfortunately arrived on the scene too late to prevent the seizure. There was also a claim by the Revolutionary Guard that they had seized another UK-registered vessel, the 315,000gt, Mesdar. Fortunately, she was released and able to continue her intended voyage. At the time, approximately thirty UK-flagged vessels would pass through the Gulf each day and in doing so have to pass through the Straits of Hormuz, a narrow stretch of water – approximately 21 miles wide – between Iran and the United Arab Emirates. The incident immediately drew much condemnation from countries and organisations around the world. The UK’s Chamber of Shipping called for greater protection for British registered vessels. Its chief executive Bob Sanguinetti said. “We condemn unreservedly the capture of the Stena Impero as she transited the Strait of Hormuz.”

Former Royal Navy chief Admiral The Lord West, who has repeatedly warned about the shortage of warships in the Navy, said: “I am surprised that we have not said to British tankers that they should not move anywhere in these waters until we are able to escort them.”

Within a week the Government, which did initially introduce a ban on UK vessels using the seaway, ordered the Royal Navy’s hierarchy to protect British vessels from Iranian gunboats, and five days after the seizure of the Stena Impero, the 47,000gt, BW Elm, became the first British merchant vessel, under the escort of HMS Montrose, to pass through the Strait of Hormuz. The Government said it had revoked its ban on British flagged vessels using the seaway, which carries about a fifth of the world’s oil. The Royal Navy escort arrangements – which would see about five vessels at a time being guarded through the Strait – were welcomed by the UK Chamber of Shipping, with its chief executive commenting: “This move will provide some much needed safety and reassurance to our shipping community in this uncertain time. However, we will continue to push for a de-escalation of tensions and the safe return of our seafarers.” At the time of writing, the UK is reported to have joined a US-led naval force to escort shipping through the Strait of Hormuz. Although the Stena Impero’s international crew, who are from India, Latvia, Russia and the Philippines, have reportedly been allowed to speak to their families, for whom it must be an extremely anxious time, they still remain incarcerated aboard their vessel. It is difficult to imagine the stress they are under, not knowing what the future holds for them. There is no doubt the vessel’s Swedish owner, Stena Bulk and her management company – Northern Marine Management – will be exploring every possible avenue to ensure the safety and welfare of the crew and facilitate the release of the vessel. Understandably, the incident initially attracted much publicity due to it involving a British registered vessel. But seafaring is an international business and there are many cases – worldwide – of seafarers of all nationalities, being held and detained against their will for nothing more than innocently and legitimately earning a living. That alone can be a hard and hazardous life, dealing with the elements, not to mention often long periods spent away from their families and friends. With it no longer making headline news on our television screens it has to be hoped that diplomatic discussions at the highest political level are continuing in an attempt to bring the situation to a peaceful conclusion, and for all those affected, it is not a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’.

PETER CORRIN, EDITOR

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