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Gard News 194, May/July 2009

From a Master's desk Basra and beyond – A VLCC's voyage from Iraq to the Far East
By Captain Dimitrios Kolitsas,



Captain Dimitrios Kolitsas recalls the events of a trip from Basra to South Korea on his VLCC ASTIPALAIA.


Photo: M/T ASTIPALAIA courtesy of Andros Maritime Agencies.


On 20th September 2008, after an uneventful ballast voyage from the US West Coast via the Singapore straits, we approached Fujairah (UAE) offshore anchorage area for replenishment of bunkers. Two hours before arrival we had established communication with the local port control by VHF and  were instructed to anchor in deep water anchorage “Bravo”, which is the designated area for vessels requiring bunkers.

Before entering the anchorage we encountered heavy traffic with other vessels leaving the anchorage and many fishing boats in the approaches.  In these circumstances, the vessel’s approach required special attention, therefore a risk assessment had been carried out prior to arrival, which ensured an efficient bridge team management operation throughout the approach, resulting in the vessel finally and safely dropping anchor within the southern limits of the Bravo anchorage at 0720 hrs.

Although the anchorage is exposed to weather conditions, it is generally calm and considered to be a safe anchorage with a depth range between 80 and 120 metres. We followed the normal anchoring procedure for this vessel at Fujiarah, which is to walk out two shackles and finish with 10 shackles on deck.

For the forthcoming voyage, charterer’s intention was to load the ship at Basra (Iraq) and to maximise her cargo intake of crude oil, always consistent with the permissible departure draft of 21 m. For that reason the minimum bunker required (500 MT of IFO380cst) was received, in order to safely reach Basra, load the nominated cargo and return laden to Fujairah for a second bunkering operation.

The second day of our stay at Fujairah anchorage was the day our crew had been waiting for after our long round voyage to/from the US West Coast, which had lasted in excess of two months. This was the day when the crew took shore leave. Shore leave is arranged, when time permits, for part of the crew to proceed ashore on the first day at anchor after bunkering and the remainder on the next day. The port of Fujairah is one port from which Pakistani crew members can send money to their families, so that is their first priority when they arrive there. Because of the long voyages that we often take, people coming back to the ship are fully “loaded” with goods that are not available during their everyday life on board. After a five-day stay at anchorage, we sailed on 25th September at 1000 hrs for our port of loading: Basra oil terminal. During the passage through the Arabian Gulf, the weather and visibility were very good, both commercial and fishing boat traffic was light and the passage took 1.5 days.

All vessels en-route to and from Iraqi ports must pass within a five nautical mile radius of a designated point. Approaching vessels must contact the Maritime Security Forces (MSF), by marine VHF and be prepared to respond to MSF queries. This force is authorised to conduct maritime security operations to prevent the unauthorised trade of arms and related materials and to take all necessary measures to contribute to the maintenance of security and stability in Iraq. The Al Basra terminal remains heavily patrolled and protected. However, the terminal is not ISPS compliant. Approaching vessels must have a correctly-functioning AIS to avoid unnecessary delays on identification by the Coalition forces.

As the vessel approached the area, and well in advance, we tried to contact the Basra oil terminal repeatedly; however, no reply was received until the vessel arrived off the pilot boarding area, where we were instructed to anchor on arrival in deep water anchorage B. Vessels’ personnel must be equipped with both a power of endurance and patience as any reply from the terminal often takes a long time. When approaching the military checkpoint area, we contacted the coalition forces on VHF the MSF asked some routine questions regarding the vessel’s general particulars, cargo requirements, crew nationality, etc.

Upon entering the approach channel, we noticed that some buoys were missing and others were unlit. Because the transit was undertaken at night, the ECDIS and ship’s radars were vital aids to navigation for the channel transit, as well as the detailed passage plan which had been prepared well in advance, including parallel index references, which were a vital tool in ensuring the vessel’s safe passage. Again the risk assessment carried out prior to leaving Fujairah contributed to the safe navigation of the vessel. Later on I pointed out to the local pilots that such irregularities with the channel buoys, especially in such a confined area, could put at great risk the safety of a VLCC, so they should not be permitted and should be immediately rectified. Regrettably, there was no reply.

Vessels navigating in this confined area often encounter fishing vessels and therefore additional security precautions have to be taken and the bridge team has to co-ordinate efficiently and work seamlessly, as they also impede normal routes of navigation and do not give way or make room to approaching vessels.

We finally anchored within the northern limits of the designated anchorage on 27th September at 0001 hrs and Notice of Readiness was tendered.  On 28th September a team of nine heavily-armed US Marines boarded the vessel for a compulsory inspection and security verification before berthing. Basically this team was interested  in searching for weapons and related material on board. As instructed, all officers and crew members were mustered on the aft mooring station. The only two members allowed to remain in their positions were myself, who stayed on the bridge, and the chief engineer, who remained in the engine control room. After the inspection, which lasted two hours, the MSF team departed from the vessel.  The inspection is valid for seven days only and due to the slow loading rate at the terminal and the resulting delays for all vessels at anchor, on some occasions it has to be undertaken twice.

On 1st October our vessel was instructed to proceed to the pilot station for pilot embarkation and to transit to our nominated berth, berth No. 3, on the sea island. As we approached the berth three tugs were made fast on our starboard side using ship’s lines. The approach to the berth had to be carefully monitored due to the strong cross current and when approaching the berth two attempts were made to put the vessel alongside, despite the attendance of the three tugs. During these attempts, I was informed by the pilot that the tugs could not use their full power due to their age and lack of maintenance. This was a hazard which was included in our risk assessment for unberthing and departure from the port. The vessel was made fast alongside 3-3-2 forward and aft. There was an air of relief amongst the bridge team once the approach and mooring operation had been completed.

The berth has three loading arms but only two manifolds are connected up for loading. The loading master has to be supplied with a ship’s radio for communication between the vessel’s cargo control room and the terminal. Only two vessels are loaded at any one time, despite the fact that three may be berthed alongside the Sea Island. The maximum loading rate provided by the terminal is about 65,000 bbls/hr,  which is shared by both vessels loading simultaneously. Priority is given to the ship that starts loading first, which loads at approximately 40,000 bbls/hr, while the other one loads at 25,000 bbls/hr.

Our vessel completed cargo operations, without incident, on 4th October at 1448 hrs. A total cargo of 1,986,106 barrels of crude oil had been loaded in just 68 hours and we  were informed by the pilot that the unberthing would take place on the next available tide. We finally commenced unmooring operations on the next morning at 0800 hrs. Three tugs were made fast to unberth the vessel. Our vessel was turned around towards her starboard side, so to get in line with the exit buoy No. 14. Tugs were cast off as soon as the vessel was in line with the buoy.

Due to the unfavourable weather conditions, the pilot could not disembark after unmooring the vessel and demanded a substantial amount as a “carry over” payment for the transit to Fujairah, along with accommodation and repatriation costs. After a long discussion, and in order to avoid any delay to the laden passage, the pilot’s demands were accepted. The pilot, of course, refused to sign any note of protest. We were later informed by agents that this is the normal practice in case of bad weather in Basra.

The vessel departed with a draft of 21 m, which is the maximum permissible departure draft from Basra. Both the passage plan and the chart highlighted the 18.2 m shoal patch located within the limits of anchorage B and the vessel’s position was monitored very carefully throughout the channel transit, where a strong easterly current was experienced. The vessel transited the channel with a minimum 3.1 m under-keel clearance.

In the early hours of 7th October we arrived and dropped anchor at Fujairah anchorage Bravo. After anchoring, the bunker barge came alongside and made fast.  Bunkering operations were completed at about midnight on 7th October. A quantity of  4,000 MT IFO was received, sufficient to perform the laden voyage to Yosu, South Korea, and to return in ballast back to Fujairah.

After completion of bunkering we  commenced the voyage to Yosu, which would take the vessel through the straits of Malacca and Singapore, an area where the vessel’s security alert would be raised to level 2 and, for a fully laden deep drafted VLCC in heavily congested waters, the navigation of the vessel would have to be executed to the highest standards.

As per IMO general provisions, any vessel drawing a draft of 15 m or more is required  to maintain minimum under-keel clearance of 3.5 m while transiting Singapore straits, and a maximum speed of 12 knots. As a result, the vessel’s speed has to be adjusted in order to pass the One Fathom Bank, Buffalo Rock and Eastern Bank, at suitable heights of tide, with reductions of speed also required during the transit to minimise squat.

In addition, the progress of the vessel has to be regularly reported to the Singapore Vessel Traffic Information Service (VTIS) and the possibility of sudden, heavy rain squalls reducing visibility has to be considered. It was vital that on preparing our passage plan all these factors were taken into account, with the vessel’s progress through the straits carefully scheduled. After the passage plan was prepared, a Risk Assessment for the passage was also carried out and a meeting convened with all officers, so that both the bridge and engine room management teams were fully aware of their duties, the requirements for each stage of the passage and rosters prepared in the event that due to unforeseen circumstances the bridge or engine room management team required further resources. This meeting is very important so that questions can be raised and points clarified well before the transit begins.

It is company policy when the vessel is proceeding laden to Singapore that a pilot is taken at Brothers Island for transit of the straits or alternatively for navigation across the straits to the Singapore pilot boarding areas.

Even though armed coastal state personnel are today actively involved in the security of vessels, this could be improved further and therefore the vessel’s security level is raised to “MARSEC LEVEL 2 – Heightened”  when passing through the Malacca and Singapore straits. These areas are listed as very high risk and extra caution is required in order to avoid pirate attacks. During transit of these straits, anti-piracy patrols should be maintained, fire pumps should be running to enable water jets to be deployed, if required, so as to cover ship’s aft part, and a strict 24-hour look out using all available means to get an early warning of any approaching threat should be maintained.

After our deep-drafted vessel passed the One Fathom Bank, a period of intense navigation and security awareness began. Having arrived off Brothers on the same day, we continued past Buffalo Rock and Batu Berhanti, at which point the pilot disembarked.  After that we proceeded at a speed sufficiently slow in order to arrive at a suitable height of tide at the shallows off the Eastern Bank, an area where special care has to be taken, as many vessels are approaching Horsburgh Lighthouse and Eastern Bank from various directions and there is always a large concentration of  fishing boats. During the passage all the buoys were clearly visible in their charted positions and fully lit. Co-ordination with the local VTIS during navigating through the straits was also of assistance to the vessel.

The vessel cleared the area, after an uneventful passage, on 18th October at 1100 hrs, having had a minimum under-keel clearance of 4.4 m during the transit. The vessel’s complement could now revert to their normal routines and security level and prepare for the forthcoming discharge at Yosu.

The passage planning, risk assessments and meetings with the bridge and engine room management teams, as well as the crew’s diligence in their security duties, all greatly assisted in the preparations for the navigation and loading of my vessel as described in this log and were invaluable tools in ensuring the safety and protection of the vessel, her cargo, crew and the environment.


Gard News 194, May/July 2009

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Gard News is published quarterly by Gard AS, Arendal, Norway.