Concerns continue to grow over the situation in the southern Red Sea and Gulf of Aden as reports this week emerged that Yemen’s Iran backed Huthi rebels have repeatedly fired missiles and drones at vessels using the shipping lanes that they say are linked to Israel in a show of support for Palestinians.
The US this week started to build a multinational naval task force to protect the waterway leading to the Suez Canal through which more than 10% of global trade transits.
Maersk, accounting for a substantial percentage of global container freight, said it remained “deeply concerned” about the situation.
As of Tuesday, Maersk said it had about 20 vessels that had paused transits, out of which half were waiting east of Gulf of Aden and the rest waiting south of Suez in the Red Sea or north of Suez in the Mediterranean Sea.
A Maersk spokesperson said: “Due to the highly escalated security situation, on Friday, 15 December 2023, Maersk announced a pause for all its vessels bound for the area.
“This decision was taken to ensure the safety of our crews, vessels and customers’ cargo on board.
“Having monitored developments closely, Maersk has decided that out of safety reasons all vessels previously paused and due to sail through the region will now be re-routed around Africa via the Cape of Good Hope. They will continue their voyages on the diverted routes as soon as operationally feasible. Impacted customers will be informed directly with further details. For all future vessel sailings planned through the area, a case-by-case assessment will take place to determine whether adjustments need to be made – including diversions via the Cape of Good Hope and further contingency measures.”
The Transnet National Port Authority (TNPA) said it had not yet received any abnormal vessel traffic at the Port of Cape Town.
“Vessels calling the port are still the scheduled and planned vessels. TNPA has received requests from Maersk for port services specifically around bunkering at anchorage which the PoCT currently does not offer,” said Transnet. Cape Times shipping columnist and maritime expert Brian Ingpen said some ships are being diverted; others are waiting to see what happens and whether a naval force will be established to escort ships through the affected area.
“Those ships that are currently some distance from the affected area will slow down to see what happens before diverting‒ if necessary. At present we are not talking of hundreds of ships being diverted, although it may develop into that,” Ingpen said.
“Not all ships will need to berth in South African harbours as they will have sufficient fuel and stores to reach their destinations. Some are too deep-draughted to enter South African ports.
Durban and Richards Bay are under pressure at present, but other ports have some space for some additional callers.
“A problem will be fuel supplies as the South African oil refining industry is in crisis and additional fuel will have to be imported – which could take time. South African ports will need to improve their efficiency levels to get additional ships in and out of port as quickly as possible. But at present, only some ships are being diverted.”
He added that “extra steaming time” was always more expensive.
“About two weeks extra via the Cape if coming from Singapore or beyond to Europe; additional time (equals) additional costs, especially additional fuel, longer period on charter (if a chartered ship) equals additional charter costs.”
Meanwhile, hopes are high that Israel and Hamas may be inching toward another truce and hostage release deal in the Gaza war, following secret talks and as the head of the Palestinian militant group visited Egypt.
Fighting continued unabated on Wednesday in Gaza, where the Israeli army reported close-quarter combat and more than 300 strikes over the past day, while the death toll among its own forces rose to 134 inside Gaza.
The UN estimates 1.9 million of Gaza's 2.4 million residents have been forced to flee their homes, many sheltering in tents amid dire shortages and the biting winter cold.