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Tanker shipping sacrifices safety for security in Straits of Hormuz

Tanker shipping sacrifices safety for security in Straits of Hormuz
Adina Fenton 30 Jul 2019

Shipping data provider Windward’s pre-sales manager Adina Fenton examines the tracks of shipping in the Straits of Hormuz and discusses some of the extreme measures being taken to avoid the fate of Stena Impero.

Iran attacks 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 is 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 Grace 1 off Gibraltar. It reached its peak when two British tankers were seized by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp on 19 July. Mesdar was quickly released. Stena Impero, at the time of writing, remains at anchor in Bandar Abbas.

Keep calm and carry on

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 is the only way into the Middle East 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 protecting 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 lessen 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 trade-offs, especially in terms of maritime safety.

Avoiding Iranian waters

The most visible change Windward has 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 10 nautical miles 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.