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Is Maritime Media Putting Ships At Risk In The Red Sea?

Is Maritime Media Putting Ships At Risk In The Red Sea?
John Konrad December 24, 2023

by Captain John Konrad (gCaptain OpEd) LloydsList is a competitor of my publication gCaptain. We believe in shipping media working together for the greater good of our industry, the safety of the seas, and the growth and prosperity of our industry. We avoid direct conflict. We do not lob missiles or drones or shells across the pond lightly but it is my opinion, as an experienced seafarer myself, that the most recent post by Lloyds List editor Richard Meade is dangerous and puts mariners at risk.

This is important because Lloyds List is very influential among ship owners and the insurance market-based in London. Operation Prosperity Guardian transcends any maritime security paradigm the industry has faced in decades. The Red Sea is a kinetic and rapidly evolving combat zone, brimming with explosive military action. The paramount importance of accurately comprehending and communicating its deadly stakes cannot be overstated. Journalists bear a crucial responsibility: their portrayal of this mission’s effectiveness and boundaries holds immense sway. Any misrepresentation could inadvertently lead influential stakeholders — such as ship owners, insurers, and charterers — into the perilous territory of unwarranted risks. This operation is not just about safeguarding ships; it’s a high-stakes endeavor where understanding the true nature of its lethality is vital for all involved.

For decades, the relative safety of the seas rendered the naval expertise of shipping journalists less critical. Seafarers navigated with minimal threat, and in times of peril, such as the peak of Somali piracy, robust naval cooperation and ample resources efficiently countered these dangers. However, the current landscape has shifted dramatically. Naval forces, now constrained by budget cuts, face a rapidly expanding web of geopolitical risks that span the globe. They are distracted and stretched thin by extreme and consequential threats in the Black and South China Seas. Military commanders are on edge. This new reality means that the naval capacity to manage maritime threats is no longer as assured as it once was, once small threats like the Houthis, threaten to escalate into major conflict. This has made the role of accurate and expert shipping journalism more crucial than ever.

I do not hold Lloyd’s List or its Editor-in-Chief, Richard Meade, accountable for underestimating the current threats and deadly challenges faced by today’s combat commanders, or for the inadvertent slips in his holiday message. My lack of blame stems from recognizing the rapid pace at which these concerns have escalated, measured in months rather than years. The purpose of this editorial is not to assign fault but to raise awareness among my fellow journalists. It is crucial to understand the significant and widening divide between the United States-dominated naval community and the European Union-dominated shipping networks. This growing gap underscores the need for more expert and informed journalism in both arenas to understand this rapidly evolving geopolitical landscape.

“The promise of frigates converging on the southern stretches of the Bab el Mandeb strait is a Christmas wish come true for the shipping industry,” said Meade in a recent LinkedIn post. “There has rightly been near-universal applause for the US-led ‘Operation Prosperity Guardian’ (OPG) coalition.”

The promise of frigates converging on the southern stretches of the Bab el Mandeb strait is a Christmas wish come true for the shipping industry and there has rightly been near-universal applause for the US-led ‘Operation Prosperity Guardian’ coalition.

But this is not going to be a quick fix.

Right now the Prosperity Guardians have just four ships to defend $1trn worth of goods and 12% of global trade. That fleet will grow and its rules of engagement will no doubt become clear over the coming days, but until shipowners can see tangible evidence that the protection on offer is sufficient to stop ships sinking and crew being killed, there is an understandable reluctance to re-route tonnage.

Those containerships that had halted in the wake of recent attacks have now re-joined the queue to exit the Suez. The fact that carriers are now paying a second canal toll, in addition to the 20 days additional sailing and a likely additional fuel bill of between $1.5m and $2m, all indicates that the lines are now preparing for the disruption to last several weeks, at the very least.

The majority of container lines are now out of the Red Sea until next year and will only return once the risk has been sufficiently reduced.

But there are still hundreds of vessels transiting the Houthi hotspot and the establishment of a naval corridor comes with its own set of risks.

The Houthis fought a Saudi-led coalition in Yemen from 2015 until a ceasefire last year. They have found new infamy in their latest guise as Red Sea pirates.

The Shia group wants to be thought of as Yemen’s government and will not want to give up its newfound status easily. There is concern that the naval taskforce will only escalate attempts to disrupt trade by other means.

Repelling missiles and drones is well within the wheelhouse of the navies heading to the fight. Stopping explosives-laden remote-controlled boats could prove more tricky to stamp out.

As ever, it is the humble seafarer that is left on the frontline of such risk calculations and while the rest of us prepare for a few days of festive relaxation, thousands of crew will once again be sailing this Christmas on high alert.

If there are any Christmas wishes left, that is where they should be directed.
Richard Meade Editor in Chief, Lloyd’s List via LinkedIn

Meade admits it will take time to build the coalition, which is true, but the fact it has received “universal applause” to date is patently false. While it’s true the shipping elite ensconced in London do appear to be pleased with OPG the mariners themselves are deeply frustrated and worried as are important coalition members.

The current state of the coalition, under the micro-management of Jake Sullivan in a White House that closed its Maritime desk the day Biden took office, is highly troublesome while the US Maritime Administration (MARAD) under Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg (MARAD is responsible for managing the collaboration between the Navy and commercial shipping industry) has been silent. In fact, despite new threats emerging weekly – like the drone attack on India yesterday – they have zero active security alerts posted and their active advisory for the Red Sea contains a scant 2,286 words. This is an enormous oversight yet a search for MARAD at Lloyds List (and competitors like Journal of Commerce) reveals little critical coverage of this crucially important department.

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