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Gard News 196, November 2009/January 2010

By Captain Georgios Tziatzios, Master of a 63,325 DWT bulk carrier, with introduction by the vessel's London-based operators.


Captain Georgios Tziatzios describes the preparations for transit of the Gulf of Aden as well as incidents that have taken place during the actual transit of his vessel.



Whilst the industry reads daily reports of the piracy situation in the Gulf of Aden, obtains updates of the latest developments to combat the situation and regularly receives advice from various industry bodies, we, as operators, found ourselves earlier this year in the position whereby one of the vessels under our management was fixed for a voyage which would involve transit of this area.

The prime purpose of this article is to circulate to other members a report from the master giving an account of an actual transit during which one  hijacking and two further attempts took place, the procedures involved prior to the transit, and to outline the measures we, as operators, took in preparation for the transit.

Early in 2009, a Panamax bulk carrier of 63,325 DWT under our operation was fixed to carry a cargo of wheat from Novorossiysk to Gwadar in Pakistan.Clearly, from a commercial operations perspective, this voyage involved a number of potential pitfalls in addition to the Gulf of Aden transit, and the decision was made to "split" the voyage into four sections, namely the loading at Novorossiysk, Suez transit, Gulf of Aden transit and discharge at Gwadar.

The first "section" of this voyage, the loading at Novorossiyk, had the potential for difficulties to be encountered with the Russian authorities in respect of ballast water quality and fines for incorrect medicine locker inventory and associated storage of medicines such as morphine. From a cargo perspective there were concerns about the bill of lading quantity of the cargo to be shipped, along with the actual quality of the cargo.

Similarly, at Gwadar there were concerns regarding the method used to calculate the cargo outturn.

Gard's website was researched in order to obtain updated information on these issues, and close contact was maintained with the Club throughout the loading, during the passage and throughout the discharge, to ensure that none of the risks identified led to an eventual claim. By appointing Club correspondents and additional surveyors to attend from the time of the vessel's arrival at both Novorossiysk and Gwadar the voyage was successfully completed without incident or claim. In particular, the service provided by the Club's correspondents in Novorossiysk was of notable assistance in continuous sampling of the cargo, sealing the vessel's holds and carrying out draft surveys.

Turning to the focus of this article, the Gulf of Aden transit, it is fair to say that no matter how much we had read about the situation and the preparations that were made, it was only when the vessel actually transited the area that it became clear just how serious the situation is and the many hazards that a vessel faces, along with the natural apprehension that will affect the crew during transit.

As operators of the vessel it was clear that a valuable asset under our management was about to embark on a voyage through hazardous waters and as a company it was imperative that all available efforts, both ashore and on board, had to be concentrated on the task of ensuring that all risks of the vessel being hijacked were minimised.

Before the voyage, there was an opportunity to bring the master of the vessel to London in order to fully brief him on the roles of MTO Dubai1 and MSCHOA2 in assisting the vessel during the transit. The master was also provided with all updated information concerning the situation in the Gulf of Aden, given details of the best practices to observe during transit and advised as to how the reports to both MTO Dubai and MSCHOA were to be compiled. The actual transit was discussed in detail and it was agreed that the vessel would transit the International Recommended Transit Corridor (IRTC) at a speed of 12 knots, which would give the vessel sufficient redundancy in order to enable the master to increase speed should the vessel come under attack during the transit. Little did we know at the time that this redundancy would indeed be required.

Our company had already registered with MSCHOA some months earlier and all preparations were therefore in place to   enable the master to register his vessel for transit. In our office we ensured that the relevant British Admiralty chart was available to monitor the vessel's progress and the company's tracking system for the vessel was re-programmed in order to obtain an hourly update of the vessel's course, position and speed. Shortly prior to commencement of the vessel's transit, a test of the vessel's security alert systems took place and the company used this test to exercise their security response procedures.

Before proceeding to Captain Tziatzios's narrative, we would like to take this opportunity to thank MSCHOA, MTO Dubai, the coalition forces involved at the time of transit and Gard for their advice and support leading up to and during the vessel's transit, which undoubtedly contributed to ensuring the safe passage of the vessel.

The following is Captain Tziatzios's narrative of his preparation for and actual transit of the Gulf of Aden:

Preparing to enter the corridor
On 14th March, at 15:40 (LT), our vessel dropped the last Suez pilot and continued her voyage sailing deep into the Red Sea. At 17:20 the vessel established contact with MSCHOA by e-mail and reported our estimated date and time of arrival at point A of the IRTC, which is positioned at 45°00' East in the Gulf of Aden. Additionally, our vessel's operators had also established contact with MSCHOA and all the necessary details of the vessel were given, as well as the date and time of arrival at point A. The following day the vessel received a reply from MSCHOA stating that our initial report had been delivered to them and that from this point our vessel was under their close surveillance.

On the same day a meeting took place on board, attended by all the ship's officers, including the chief mate, the chief engineer and the ship security officer (SSO). The main issue of discussion was the increased risk of pirate attack that now existed in the Gulf of Aden and the measures that the vessel would take to ensure that early detection of suspicious craft would be made and the actions to be taken thereafter, should the vessel come under attack. We carried out our own risk assessment and consulted all the circulars and guidelines provided by our flag state, our operators and international shipping organisations, such as Intertanko, as well as the Ship Security Plan regarding pirate attacks. At noon a further e-mail was sent to MSCHOA in which the time and date of our arrival at point A was re-confirmed.

On 16th March a full security drill was carried out to exercise all personnel in their duties to ensure early detection of a potential attack and thereafter their duties and the actions to be taken during an actual hijacking or a hostile boarding. After the drill a full de-briefing took place in which all the crew participated and it was confirmed that all personnel were fully conversant with the additional anti-piracy measures that were going to be implemented in the following days.

An e-mail to MTO Dubai was also sent and it was apparent that, despite this being our first direct communication with them, the vessel was already under their close surveillance. The details provided included all the necessary ship's data, the estimated date and time of arrival at point A, along with the estimated time of exiting the transit corridor at point B.  We also sent a complete passage plan, which included all waypoints and ETA at our destination port of Gwadar. Throughout this voyage the vessel would remain under surveillance of MTO Dubai.

On 17th March a successful security alert system test took place and the chief officer undertook a thorough inspection of the condition and operational capability of all security equipment, which included projectors, cargo lights, flashlights, fire hoses and portable VHFs that were going to be used by the crew to carry out the anti-piracy measures. He confirmed that everything was in order and ready for use.

Later that same day updates were sent to MSCHOA and MTO, Dubai.

At 2:15 on 19th March the vessel passed 15°00' North southbound and all the necessary reports were provided to the relevant parties. At this point the vessel was bound to report her position, speed and course regularly until we arrived at point B of the IRTC.

As we passed the 15°00' North parallel we began to adjust our speed in order to reach entry point A of the IRTC at 08:30.

During 18th March the vessel continued to sail at reduced speed and all the equipment required for the vessel's anti-piracy measures was positioned and was once again inspected and successfully tested for operational readiness.

Ready to enter the Gulf of Aden
At 18:00 all the anti-piracy measures were in place and the vessel implemented  heightened and additional security procedures, which included two navigation officers and ABs on the bridge at all times, continuous deck patrols equipped with portable VHFs and flashlights on the main deck and a constant lookout posted on both the poop and forecastle decks. In the engine room watches were doubled up, the main fire pump was activated and vessel's projectors were adjusted accordingly. Cargo lights were situated ready at various locations around the vessel. As an additional precaution, communications procedures were put in place whereby only essential radio transmissions were made and the information being transmitted by the AIS was limited to the minimum required for transit of the area. All the vessel's complement was involved in the security procedures until the Gulf of Aden transit was complete.

On 19th March at 0:30  the vessel entered the Gulf of Aden, still at reduced engine revolution. I decided to follow an eastbound course so as to keep a safe distance from the Somali coast and still join the vessel convoy at our rendezvous point (point A, or 45°00' East) at 08:30.

As planned, we arrived at point A at 08:30 and joined the other convoy vessels and continued to sail together at 12 knots. At this point the relevant report was sent to MSCHOA and MTO Dubai.

At 17:30 a VHF message was received on CH 16 from another bulk carrier which was sailing eastbound 35 NM ahead of us, but not in the transit convoy. It was disturbing to hear the plight in the master's voice as he shouted that a pirate attack was taking place on his vessel and asked for assistance. Following this message a coalition frigate, which was 12 NM east of us, called the vessel repeatedly on VHF channel 16 but received no answer. We later observed the hijacked vessel on our radar screens as she reduced speed, eventually stopped and then set a course to the Somali coastline.

While hearing the attack taking place we raised the alarm on board and all ship's personnel mustered to their posts ready to encounter any threat that may materialise against our vessel.

The coalition frigate advised all vessels in the convoy to keep a safe distance from the hijacked vessel and to assume a different course.

An attack successfully repelled
At 22:30 a VHF message was received from a Turkish vessel near our position, three NM north in the west-bound corridor, reporting a pirate attack against them. Again we raised the alarm and manned all of our posts ready to defend the vessel.

During this period the vessel's main searchlight projector was used to scan the area for any potential threats. At 22:50 the Turkish vessel reported that the attack had been successfully repelled by her crew. However, due to the close proximity of this attempted hijack we maintained our heightened state of readiness for a considerable time. Eventually the vessel did return to a state of detection rather than defence, at which point there was a genuine air of relief amongst all on board. However, this was to be short lived.

More attacks
On 20th March we were maintaining a course of 072° and a speed of about 12 knots in the convoy when at 05:30 a tanker in the convoy, at a distance of no more than 2.7 NM south  of us, reported that they had spotted two pirate speedboats and that the vessel was going to take evasive manoeuvres in order to avoid any attack. Again we raised the alarm and manned all of our "defensive" positions.

After a few moments we also visually observed the two speedboats and increased our speed whilst maintaining a close watch on the targets.

Shortly afterwards a flare was fired above the two speedboats and they immediately increased speed and set a course to leave the area. At this point coalition helicopters had arrived; they were the source of the flare and were now patrolling the area around the convoy.

We continued to sail towards point B maintaining a course of 072°, albeit with increased engine revolution and sea speed of 13.5 knots, as recommended by the coalition forces. At 12:00 all the relevant daily reports were sent and at 19:00 we established VHF contact with a further coalition frigate operating in the area.

At this point I should also mention that during the day a large number of false reports were received regarding other small craft, a phenomenon that can only be attributed to the heightened state of alert of the vessel and the high anxiety of the crew following the previous attacks.

Finally through
Finally at 22:30 we reached 57°00' East, exit point B of the IRTC, and sent the final relevant reports to MSCHOA and MTO Dubai. However, all anti-piracy measures continued in place until daybreak on 21st March, at which point the vessel was a safe distance from the Somali coastline and associated piracy threat.

1 The UK Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) office in Dubai, which acts as a point of contact for industry liaison with Combined Maritime Forces.
2 The Maritime Security Centre (Horn of Africa), run by the EU Naval Force is a Co-ordination Centre tasked to safeguard merchant shipping operating in the region by preventing and deterring acts of piracy in the Gulf of Aden, off the Horn of Africa and in the Somali Basin (http://www.mschoa.eu/).

Gard News 196, November 2009/January 2010

Any comments to this article can be e-mailed to the Gard News Editor.