COLUMN | Seafarers in the line of fire [Grey Power]

The bulk carrier Genco Picardy shortly after it was struck by an explosives-laden drone in the Red Sea on January 17, 2024. The black charring indicates the drone's point of impact on the lower portion of the superstructure. (Photo: Indian Navy)

How one relates to the hostilities, wars, and conflict (Kindly choose an appropriate term.) in the Middle East seems to vary a good deal, with the attacks upon shipping in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden being consigned to something of a sideshow.

There are endless comments about the effects of the interruption to normal service upon trade and the inevitable inflationary pressures from increased freight rates. The commentariat of more practical mien invariably signals the late arrival of all the shipped goods in the shops and the fact that various car factories in Europe have been put on reduced hours because all the complex electronic components are crawling around Africa. There was some person on the radio the other day raging about ships speeding up and contributing to climate change with their excessive emissions. And there is plenty to be getting on with the daily Hamas-derived casualty reports from Gaza.

The missiles and drones flying out of Houthi-held Yemen tend to be seen as significant only insofar as the passage of ships up and down the Red Sea affects the containers and energy cargoes that will be delayed. Rather less is said about the seafarers who are on the receiving end of these potentially deadly pirate attacks on their ships. However, there was a photograph taken from an escorting Indian Navy frigate that spoke volumes about just what people who go to sea for living are having to put up with, as they earn their daily bread in these waters.

“Thus, instead of focusing on their main tasks of navigating, those on board have to worry themselves sick about incoming missiles and swarms of pirate boats.”

It was a picture of the port side of the superstructure of the bulk carrier Genco Picardy, hit by a drone in the southern Red Sea. The drone did not appear to have penetrated the ship’s structure, but it had clearly wrecked the port gangway and started a fire on the main deck. Smoke damage and scorch marks were to be seen around the point of impact, the accommodation in the next deck also showing similar signs.

Fortunately, nobody aboard had been hurt in this attack, which had taken place allegedly because of the US ownership of the vessel, although it would have given them all a very nasty fright at the very least. It was lucky that the explosive drone had not hit the accommodation itself, or the ship’s bridge, which would have almost certainly have caused casualties. There is probably limited precision in the guidance of these weapons, and the Houthis doubtless congratulated themselves that the ship had been hit at all. Nobody is likely to care about the seafarers, of whatever nationality they might be. They are, as the saying goes, merely collateral.

If one were to look carefully, the photograph also revealed the coiled razor wire surrounding the accommodation block and around the poop, which is itself an illustration of the miserable depths the modern seafarer is forced to contend with in these enlightened times. Thus, instead of focusing on their main tasks of navigating and working the ship on her lawful business, those on board have to worry themselves sick about incoming missiles and swarms of pirate boats attempting to seize the ship and keep the crew as hostages.

“Seafarers did not sign up to be shot at.”

And if the ships’ crews are worrying, it is worth considering the concerns of their nearest and dearest, who are all too aware of the risks that seafaring in several parts of the world entails. Nearly two months after the vehicle carrier Galaxy Leader was captured, the ship is still lying off Hodeida with the multinational crew remaining captive.

With the Houthis themselves under attack in response to their various outrages, the prospects for any immediate relief from the hostilities do not appear to be encouraging. Several ships have now been hit, and although many prominent carriers have chosen to divert, others are still persisting with their contracted voyages. And even if you, as a seafarer, might be relieved that your ship has diverted out of harm’s way, several extra weeks of extension to the voyage may be most unwelcome.

The Sailors’ Society has now launched what it calls an urgent appeal for funds to alleviate some of the miseries caused by the ongoing attacks on merchant shipping. “Seafarers did not sign up to be shot at,” succinctly comments Sailors’ Society CEO Sara Baade, and it is impossible to disagree with her.

Michael Grey

Maritime industry legend, and former long-term editor of Lloyds List, Michael Grey kicks off each month with topical issues affecting the maritime world at large.