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Maritime in Minutes - 2023 in Review

Mergers and acquisitions, the Panama Canal water restrictions, the Dark Fleet, Starlink's mini-revolution, and shipping under attack in the Red Sea. It's been a dramatic year in shipping.

It's time for the Maritime in Minutes review of 2023 in shipping.

Seatrade Maritime News Editor Marcus Hand takes the listener on a look back over the last 12 months at some of the biggest stories in shipping and maritime featured on the podcast. Some stories featured on more than one occasion as they developed across the course of the year.

The episode includes the most read story on Seatrade Maritime News in 2023 - The dark fleet - creeping anarchy in the world’s oceans

Listen now to hear about the top stories in shipping and maritime in 2023.

Listen to the episode now in the player above or the app of your choice below

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Episode transcription:

Marcus Hand  00:31

Mergers and acquisitions, Panama Canal water restrictions, the dark fleet, Starlink's mini revolution and shipping under attack in the Red Sea. It's been a dramatic year in shipping! Hi, it's Marcus Hand, editor of Seatrade Maritime News, in our final Maritime in Minutes episode of 2023. And we're going to take you on a look back over the last 12 months, and some of the biggest stories in shipping and maritime that featured on the podcast. In many cases, on more than one occasion, as the story developed across the year. Now stepping into our Seatrade Maritime time machine, also known as my laptop, we head back to January 2023. We started out 2023 with news of a major consolidation in the world of ship management, and that was the merger of Thome and OSM to become OSM Thome. The merger, announced in January, was one of the largest seen in the sector in recent years. With the merger of Norwegian headquartered OSM and Singapore headquartered Thome, creating one of the world's largest third party ship managers with around 1000 vessels in their fleet under technical and crew management. Here's what we reported at the time.  The merger was approved by regulatory authorities in May and gave birth officially to OSM Thome. It was not the only merger we reported on in January, there was also the acrimonious failed conglomeration of tanker firms Frontline and Euronav, but we'll come back to that later in this episode. Moving into the year a bit, and in March, we featured a story we'd come back to time and time again in 2023 and one of my personal favourites, the rollout of SpaceX's Starlink communications service, which caused a mini revolution in the satellite communications sector. In March, we were reporting on early adopter Anglo Eastern ship management. And here's what Gary Howard had to say. I was lucky enough to get to the chance to sit down with CEOs, Finn Amund Norbye of OSM and Olav Nortun from Thome to discuss the whys and wherefores of the planned merger. Size and scale came through it as the key factor across a wide variety of different areas, including decarbonisation, and regulation and meeting those regulations for decarbonisation, and the amount of resources required, crewing and training and again the resources required for that and future growth and having that size and scale to finance that growth.


Gary Howard  02:47

Yeah, a bit of satellite communications for week two, a story from Ship Manager Anglo Eastern, who said it expects that at least 200 of its vessels will be connected to SpaceX Starlink network by the end of 2023. I picked this out as Starlink is an LEO or Low Earth Orbit system. Basically, the satellites are much closer to Earth. And this helps lower the latency that the time it takes to send and receive data, and also the bandwidth the the amount of data that you can send over a given time, I won't go into the big differences between LEO and the types of satellites that we're used to in maritime but suffice to say this means that ships will be more of an extension of the office in digital terms and able to send and receive large amounts of data in basically real time. 


Marcus Hand  04:02

Since the launch of Starlink service for maritime earlier this year, take up has positively exploded in terms of the maritime communications sector. We've seen major fleet commitments from the likes of Maersk, Hapag-Lloyd and Hafnia and it's been reported some 7000 vessels had the service onboard by November. Crew welfare has been the primary driver for the uptake giving seafarers the type of connectivity with family and friends they are used to onshore. Typically some in shipping have managed to find a black cloud to a silver lining and they are worried that their crew are spending too much of their free time on the internet and isolating. But this is clearly a revolution in communications at sea that is here to stay.  In May we featured the Dark Fleet, also known as the shadow fleet of sanctions busting vessels, which had grown dramatically since the start of Russia's war with Ukraine as the US and European Union clamped down on that trade of Russian oil.  A casualty off the coast of Malaysia underscored fears over safety of dark leaked vessels. Here's what we've reported at the time.  The fatal explosion onboard the Gabon-registered Aframax Pablo off the coast of Malaysia struck fears of a major catastrophe from ageing tankers carrying sanctioned oil in secret. Ownership of the Pablo was murky, to say the least with multiple changes in flagging ownership. The most recent just weeks before the explosion on fire, which left three crew missing, presumed dead. The incident prompted renowned commentator and Seatrade Maritime News columnist Michael Grey to write about the creeping anarchy in the world's oceans.  Michael writes: "what is particularly worrying is the speed at which this deterioration has arisen. And it's a threat to a well run system that gave reasonable confidence to industry players and the regulatory regime. Is there any will to stop this creeping anarchy, or is it all lost in tedious legal arguments about sovereignty and the freedom of the seas?  Michael Grey's column on the Dark Fleet was the most read story of the year on Seatrade Maritime News. And there is a link in the show notes if you missed it, or would like to read it again.  In the latter part of June and into July, shipping is global regulatory body, the International Maritime Organisation, was not only in the shifting media spotlight, but the mainstream as it tried to agree a revised greenhouse gas emission strategy. The pressure was on the IMO to align it's strategy with the 1.5 degrees centigrade pathway with a strong lobby for a net zero emission target by 2050. So what was agreed? Here's what we reported in the July episode of Maritime in Minutes.  What was finally agreed fell short of a hard and fast zero emissions target by 2050. But set waypoints of a 30% reduction in GHG emissions by 2030 Compared to 2008 and 80% by 2040. And it then puts an ultimate target of reaching net zero emissions as close to 2050 as possible. IMO Secretary General Kitack Lim described it as a monumental development for the IMO, and the opening of a new chapter towards decarbonisation. He was also clear that more work needed to be done. He said: "at the same time, it is not the end goal. It is in many ways the starting point of the work needs to intensify even more over the years and decades ahead of us. However, the revised strategy that you have now agreed upon, we have a clear direction, a common vision, and ambitious targets to guide us to deliver what the world expects from us".  If you're enjoying the Seatrade Maritime Podcast, make sure you never miss an episode by subscribing on the app of your choice. Now, it was not surprising that IMO Secretary General Lim heralded the outcome of the MEPC meeting, but others also believed there had been a real shift. Speaking to the Seatrade Maritime Podcast, ABS Regulatory Affairs Manager, Joseph Gardemal, who was present in both the initial GHG strategy setting meeting in 2018 and the revision in 2023, gave the following insight:


Joseph Gardemal  08:43

"And now we fast forward five years. And what I heard in the voices at the IMO was definitely not fear it was resolved. It was a belief that not only would the increased level of ambition in the GHG strategy be necessary, but also attainable. So something's clearly changed in the past five years, maybe it's become more clear that the entire industry has room to improve with operational efficiencies. Maybe it's the supply chains for alternative fuels that are beginning to take shape. Or maybe it's some of the technologies that are beginning to emerge, and it all adds up to a kind of roadmap that leads to 2050. But the change from fear and hesitancy to commitment to me, was very apparent at MEPC."


Marcus Hand  09:26

Now shipping may have agreed to revise GHG reduction emission strategy, but transporting fossil fuels remains a major part of the industry's business. Earlier in this episode, I promised to come back to the failed merger of tanker companies Frontline and Euronav. After Frontline pulled out of the proposed merger in January, it left a messy legal battle between the two sides and Euronav with two major shareholders, John Fredriksen and related entities on one side and on the other the Saverys family and CMB. Both were very differently visions of where the future of the tanker company lay. These were finally resolved in October and on Maritime in Minutes we reported.  It was announced that John Fredriksen, Frontline and Famatown will be selling the 26% stake in Euronav to Saverys controlled CMB, giving the latter a 49% stake in Euronav. Meanwhile, Euronav would sell some 24 vlccs to Frontline for $2.35 billion. The deals result in Frontline and Euronav taking two very different courses after their proposed merger, which collapsed acrimoniously at the start of the year. Frontline very much puts its future on crude tankers becoming the largest listed pure play tanker company with a historic low order book for vlccs of just 2% of the global fleet, little space in shipyards and continued demand for crude oil, Frontline believes it is well placed to reap the benefits from the market. Meanwhile, CMB wants to diversify Euronav fleet into other sectors apart from the transportation of crude oil, including taking a leading role in the decarbonisation of shipping. Euronav said "this does not mean exiting the tanker business altogether, but a gradual decrease of the share of revenues coming from a pure crude oil transportation by adding different shipping asset types to the Euronav portfolio".  A story that has dominated shipping headlines for much of the latter half of 2023 has been the drought in Panama. It's worse than 73 years, and the resulting restrictions on transits of vessels using the waterway which would steadily become more extreme. In October, the Seatrade Maritime Podcast featured a wide ranging conversation with Panama Canal administrator Ricaurte Vásquez Morales, in which he took the listener through both near term measures of draft restrictions and daily transit limits, and the longer term of using AI to predict weather patterns and the possible construction of a new reservoir.


Ricaurte Vásquez Morales  11:28

He explained "In the future, we'll take that we have identified a source of water, freshwater, that can compensate the number of transit we have missed because of drought. We believe this is going to be an issue that is going to be with us. The Panama Canal is climate dependent. So even if we have additional reservoirs, or we tried to use different technologies in order to save water in the operation on making more water efficient, there is always a risk of climate."


Marcus Hand  12:38

Unfortunately, in the weeks and months that followed the interview with the Panama Canal administrator, the situation worsened considerably. And in November's Maritime in Minutes we reported.  The drought and its impact on freshwater for the Canal's lock system had already reduced daily transits from a normal level of around 30 to 40 per day to just 30 by the start of November. However, with no end in sight to the water shortage, the Panama Canal Authority announced a phase cut in daily booking slots over the coming months to just 18 from the first February 2024, until further notice. The news sent shockwaves through the shipping industry, which now face the choice of lengthy waits for transits, sailing much longer routes around Cape Horn or via the Suez Canal, or making astronomical bids for auction slots.  In some good news in December, the Panama Canal Authority announced that rainfall had increased and it would actually be increasing the number of daily transits to 24 for mid January 2024.  The end of 2023 has also seen another major rapidly developing story in that of commercial shipping coming under attack from Houthi Militia in Yemen ostensively attacking vessels with Israeli links, although many non Israeli linked vessels have also been hit, and it is gradually turning the Southern Red Sea into a no go zone.  At the end of November on Maritime in Minutes we reported: "Rounding out November, we have a rapidly developing crisis with commercial shipping, in particular Israeli linked vessels being targeted in attacks in the Southern Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. At the time of recording, some 25 seafarers from the Ray Car Carrier vessel Galaxy Leader remain hostage, 11 days after Houthi rebels stormed the NYK charter ship in a military style operation. Two other Israeli wind vessels have also been attacked. With the Eastern Pacific Shipping managed CMA CGM semi hit by a drone and the Zodiac Maritime tanker Central Park, rescued from a hijacking by the US Navy.  At the time of recording, the 25 seafarers from the Galaxy Leader remain held hostage, and missile and drone attacks on vessels have turned into a daily occurrence. The situation is so bad that many major shipping companies such as Maersk, MSC, Hapag-Lloyd and HMM to name but a few have decided to suspend sailing through the Red Sea and therefore the Suez Canal and taking the far longer route via the Cape of Good Hope. This adds some 3000 nautical miles to an Asia-Europe voyage. The US has now announced the formation of a multinational naval task force, dubbed Operation Prosperity Guardian to protect shipping in the region. However, many shipping companies are expected to avoid the Red Sea until they're convinced of the effectiveness of the task force.  And that brings us to the end of our year end roundup. We'll be back in the first week of January on the Seatrade Maritime Podcast with our popular shipping markets outlook episode, so make sure you tune in and find out what 2024 has in store.