by Michael Grey*
We are terribly worried about our supply chains these days, now that we realise they stretch rather further than the delivery van. It is a concern that was illuminated in the past year, with the spectacular interruption to the westbound voyage of the Ever Given, followed by the revelation that the excitingly expanded Panama Canal was running out of water. Our reliance on global supply chains and globalism in general was strained to the utmost because of the pandemic, when people realised that the garden furniture they had ordered was not going to arrive before the onset of winter and possibly even the following one. The word “on-shoring,” which is not one I would have made up, became common parlance among thrusting City types. “Just in Time,” whether we are talking domestically about the non-delivery of Christmas cards, or that delayed shipment of time-sensitive goods, has become something of a redundant term.
Now the worriers are back with a vengeance, about what cargoes will not arrive in time because of delays and diversions caused by the Iranian-backed Red Sea pirates, which is the only appropriate word to describe those who fire upon passing merchant ships, or hold seafarers to ransom. Will the January sales fail to make their targets because the goods which ought to be in the shops are trundling all the way around the Cape of Storms, or lurking indecisively in the Arabian Gulf or Eastern Med, ship operators wondering what guarantees of protection might be afforded by the military escorts, if they press ahead into the Red Sea?
Saluting the mariners who make supply chains possible
But we do not, in all the meaningful talk about extended supply chains and whether the goods will arrive in time to get the boxes unloaded and the empties despatched to the East again, hear anything very much about the effect of this violence upon the people who make it all happen. That’s the seafarers, who embark upon a new year in a very uncertain climate, with all the nastiness now loose upon our world, and which they cannot, because of their employment, avoid.
None of them would have taken up seafaring employment in the expectation that they would find themselves targeted by an explosive drone or guided missile, just because they happen to be passing within range, and some Revolutionary Guard analyst has detected that there might be some small link with Israel in the ownership of their vessel. It is not much comfort to realise that if the pirate at the controls of the drones succeeds in his mission, the seafarers, once again, become just the collateral in this conflict, as they always are.
It might be that these days there is rather more humanity being shown by ship operators, who have demonstrated their reluctance to see their ships and crews hazarded by high explosive. We have probably learned a bit since the 1980s “tanker war,” when the crews were the collateral when the heroic aviators of Iran and Iraq attacked their ships, but they were expected to just keep on sailing into these hazardous waters, regardless. At least with these latest attacks, there has been something of a pause, as the navies got their protection together and people checked with their insurers.
There is rather too much in the way of man-made hazard facing seafarers as they sail into 2024. The Black Sea is no place for faint hearts, with mines, missiles and real danger in a trip to the ports of the Ukraine. The hostage takers seem to be gathering their forces in the shambles that is to be found in the Horn of Africa and they have never gone away in the Gulf of Guinea, despite the efforts of the coastal states. There are attacks by sea-robbers and maritime thugs in the waters of South-East Asia, a function, it is said, of economic deprivation in their coastal communities.
And something which seafarers in an earlier age never had to face is the insidious increase in the power of the narcotic gangs of South America, who treat merchant shipping as one of their favoured supply chains. Enormous quantities of cocaine and other hard drugs are being funnelled into the major European ports in legitimate cargoes, as well as in underwater hiding places.
Often the seafarers, whose ships are thus utilised, will have to prove that they are innocent of collusion; invariably there will be delay, inquisitions and grief, people held for months or even years, while investigations proceed. Ships crews will be just collateral in another sort of war. We ought to remember what they are facing when our supply chain lengthens in 2024 and wish them smooth seas, fast passages and freedom from all this man-made misery on their voyages.
(Photo by Houthi Military Media of attack of merchant ship in Red Sea.)
*Michael Grey is former editor of Lloyd’s List. This column is published with the kind permission of The Maritime Advocate.