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The Galaxy Leader cargo ship is escorted by Houthi boats in the Red Sea in this photo released November 20, 2023. Houthi Military Media/Handout via REUTERS

The Galaxy Leader cargo ship is escorted by Houthi boats in the Red Sea in this photo released November 20, 2023. Houthi Military Media/Handout via REUTERS

The Maritime Stories That Made 2023

Mike Schuler
Total Views: 6020
December 28, 2023

This year proved once again that the maritime industry is one of the most important and exciting industries on the planet. As 2023 comes to a close, we’re taking a look back at some of the biggest maritime stories that dominated the headlines over the last twelve months, as selected by gCaptain’s editors.

Russia’s Shadow Fleet

The fire on board the MT Pablo, part of a growing fleet of shadow tankers. Photo courtesy Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency

As Russia continues its war in Ukraine, the implementation of a price cap on Russian oil by G7 nations, the European Union, and Australia has led to the emergence of a “shadow fleet” of tankers being used to transport Russian oil over the price cap and under the radar. Estimates as to the size of the fleet range from a couple hundred to up to 600 ships that are owned and operated by a complex web of obscure companies and oil traders. The increasing size of the fleet has contributed to growing environmental and safety concerns and led to additional sanctions on entities involved in transporting Russian oil above the established cap.

Black Sea Grain Exports

Speaking of Russia’s war in Ukraine, the transportation of Ukrainian grain from Black Sea ports continued to make headlines in 2023. The Black Sea Grain Deal, brokered by the United Nations and Turkey in 2022, helped to alleviate a global food crisis by allowing Ukrainian grain and fertilizer blocked by the war to be exported safely. However, in July, Russia declined to extend the deal, leading Ukraine to establish its own alternative Black Sea corridor in order to continue exporting despite Russia’s disapproval and risks involved, such as floating sea mines. Since quitting the deal, Russia has stepped up attacks on shipping and port infrastructure in the region.

Container Shipping’s Return to ‘Normal’

In 2023, the container shipping market shifted from the surge caused by the COVID-19 pandemic to a more “normal” state similar to before the pandemic in 2019.

With supply chain disruptions and port congestion eased, freight rates suffered due to an influx of new ships coinciding with weaker demand. Meanwhile, geopolitical tensions have also continued to influence the container shipping market throughout the year. Notably, ongoing attacks by the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen on ships in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden continues to have unexpected effects on the market. While some major carriers are avoiding the area and rerouting ships around the Cape of Good Hope, others are preparing to resume services through the region under the protection of the US-led naval coalition Operation Prosperity Guardian. The impact on the container shipping sector will ultimately depend on how long the disruption will last—and right now that is anything but certain.

As we head into 2024, the container shipping sector faces an uphill battle but is proving once again that it is one of the most closely-watch maritime sectors no matter what’s happening in the market.

Car Carrier Fires in Focus

Fremantle Highway boat fire
The Fremantle Highway on fire in the North Sea, July 26, 2023. Photo courtesy Netherlands Coastguard

A major fire on board the pure car and truck carrier (PCTC) Fremantle Highway carrying hundreds of electric vehicle (EVs) put a spotlight on fire safety in the car carrier sector. The July fire was the latest in a long list of fire incidents involving PCTCs and re-ignited the debate around the safety of transporting EVs on board ships, which had previously been brought to the fore by the loss the Felicity Ace in 2022. Another notable fire, this one involving used vehicles, took place on board the Grande Costa D’Avorio at Port Newark, New Jersey, tragically resulting the loss of two firefighters.

Loss of Titan Submersible

OceanGate Expeditions/Handout via REUTERS
The Titan submersible, operated by OceanGate Expeditions to explore the wreckage of the sunken SS Titanic off the coast of Newfoundland, dives in an undated photograph. OceanGate Expeditions/Handout via REUTERS

The loss the Titan submersible sparked a global media spectacle the likes of which we haven’t seen since the 2021 grounding of the Ever Given in Suez Canal.

The OceanGate Expedition submersible suffered a catastrophic implosion back in June during a dive to the famous Titanic wreck with the loss of all five people on board, which include four paying customers. After an extensive multi-national search and rescue effort led by the U.S. Coast Guard, the wreckage of the submersible was located on the seafloor near the Titanic about 96 hours after it first submerged. The incident highlight the lax safety oversight of privately-operated submersibles and remains under investigation by the U.S. Coast Guard, NTSB and Transportation Safety Board of Canada.

Panama Canal Drought

Drought hit Panama Canal further restricts maximum ship depth
A bulk carrier transits the Cocoli Locks at the Panama Canal, on the outskirts of Panama City, Panama April 19, 2023. REUTERS/Aris Martinez/File Photo

The Panama Canal faced its worst drought in more than 70 years in 2023 thanks in part to the ongoing El Nino phenomenon, leading to a water crisis that could have implications on global trade in 2024 and beyond.

In order to manage the limited fresh water supply and ensure the uninterrupted operation of the critical waterway, the Panama Canal Authority has implemented draft restrictions and is reducing the number of daily ship transits as part of an effort to conserve water. As we enter 2024 (and Panama’s dry season), there’s not much that shipping can do except hope for rain and make contingency plans should the drought pattern continue into next year’s rainy season.

South China Sea Confrontations

A Philippine flagged boat is blocked by a China Coast Guard vessel during an incident that resulted in a collision between the two vessels, in the disputed waters of the South China Sea in this screen grab obtained from handout video released October 22, 2023. China Coast Guard/Handout via REUTERS
A Philippine flagged boat is blocked by a China Coast Guard vessel during an incident that resulted in a collision between the two vessels, in the disputed waters of the South China Sea in this screen grab obtained from handout video released October 22, 2023. China Coast Guard/Handout via REUTERS

Similar to previous years, territorial disputes and maritime claims in the South China Sea remained in the spotlight in 2023. However, it was China’s conflicts with the Philippines, including the use of water cannons by China, near-collisions, and confrontations over resupply missions, that garnered the most attention. Combined with China’s intentions for “reunification” with Taiwan, it is certain that the South China Sea dispute will remain a topic of high interest in 2024.

Offshore Wind Headwinds

Photo shows the installation of the first offshore wind turbine at South Fork Wind
The first offshore wind turbine is installed at the South Fork Wind project offshore New York. Photo courtesy New York State

The global offshore wind industry faced significant headwinds in 2023 as soaring inflation, rising interest rates and supply chain bottlenecks threatened to blow the industry’s progress off-course. Nevertheless, there were several bright spots for the industry as new projects came online and the pipeline of projects under development continued to grow to meet ambition targets.

Despite some notable setbacks in the U.S., the Biden Administration continued its full-court press towards its target of installing 30 gigawatts of offshore by 2030 with offshore wind auctions, environmental reviews and project approvals continuing at pace.

IMO Adopts Climate Strategy

All eyes were on the UN International Maritime Organization (IMO) ahead of a crucial meeting in July that would determine the global shipping industry’s climate ambition. During the meeting, a revised greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction strategy for shipping was adopted, which included a more stringent target compared to the initial strategy set in 2018. With the revised strategy, member countries agreed to reach net zero emissions “by or around” 2050, dependent on different national circumstances. The strategy also includes indicative checkpoints to reduce the total annual GHG emissions by at least 20% by 2030 (with a goal of 30%), and by at least 70% by 2040 (with a goal of 80%), compared with 2008 levels.

Considering that shipping transports around 90% of world trade and accounts for nearly 3% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, the adoption of the revised strategy marked a significant milestone in the shipping industry’s efforts to combat climate change and align itself with the 2015 Paris agreement. However, environmental groups warn that the revised strategy falls far short of being ambitious enough.

Alternative Fuels

With its emissions target set and other regulations such as the FuelEU Maritime in Europe coming into focus, the shipping industry’s uptake of alternative fuels continued to expand rapidly in 2023. This summer Maersk took delivery of the world’s first green methanol-fueled containership, while others look to other green (or greener) fuels such as LNG, ammonia, hydrogen, and even wind propulsion to help reduce emissions. While there is no one size fits all fuel for shipping’s energy transition, LNG and methanol seem to be the clear frontrunners. One of the biggest issues going forward will be the availability and pricing of green fuels as supply struggles to catch up with the expected demand.

Offshore Industry Comeback

If 2022 marked an inflection point for the offshore oil and gas industry after a prolonged eight-year downturn, 2023 has shown that the industry could be in the early stages of a multi-year upcycle as energy security remains in focus. Nearly all sectors connected to the industry have benefitted from higher day rates and fleet utilization, supporting the notion that “a rising tide floats all boats.”

Iranian Aggression in Strait of Hormuz

STRAIT OF HORMUZ (May 3, 2023) A screenshot of a video showing fast-attack craft from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy swarming Panama-flagged oil tanker Niovi as it transits the Strait of Hormuz, May 3, 2023. U.S. Navy Photo
STRAIT OF HORMUZ (May 3, 2023) A screenshot of a video showing fast-attack craft from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy swarming Panama-flagged oil tanker Niovi as it transits the Strait of Hormuz, May 3, 2023. U.S. Navy Photo

Iran displayed ongoing aggression towards shipping near the Strait of Hormuz in 2023 with Iranian forces carrying out multiple attacks and attempted seizures of ships in the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman. The situation escalated in April when Iran seized two tankers, the Chevron-chartered Advantage Sweet and Niovi, which continue to be held. While Iran has provided some vague justifications for the seizures, the U.S. believes they were in retaliation over the confiscation of an Iranian oil cargo by the U.S. Justice Department.

The increasing number and severity of incidents prompted the U.S. to increase its forces in the region and even consider the deployment of armed military personnel on commercial ships passing through the Strait of Hormuz, through which over 20% of global oil flows. According to the U.S., Iran has harassed, attacked or seized approximately 20 internationally-flagged merchant ships in the region since 2021.

Houthi Attacks on Shipping

Houthi stand on beach after ship attack
Armed men stand on the beach as the Galaxy Leader commercial ship, seized by Yemen’s Houthis last month, is anchored off the coast of al-Salif, Yemen, December 5, 2023. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

Last but certainly not least, missile and suicide drone attacks on ships in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, launched by the Iran-backed Houthi militia group in Yemen, have garnered significant attention in the final months and weeks of 2023.

The attacks have only escalated since the late November seizure of the Galaxy Leader, leading to international condemnation, the rerouting of ships around the Cape of Good Hope, and the formation of a multi-national naval coalition spearheaded by the U.S. to address the problem. As shipping companies assess the possibility of resuming transits through the region, the Houthis seem determined to continue with the attacks as long as Israel’s conflict with Hamas in Gaza continues.

Combined with the drought in the Panama Canal, Iran’s actions in the Strait of Hormuz, and South China Sea confrontations, gCaptain will continue to shine the spotlight on maritime chokepoints in 2024.

The stories included in this list were selected by gCaptain’s editors and are not meant to be a full list of the many important maritime events that took place in 2023. Feel free to share what you think were the biggest maritimes stories of 2023 by sharing on social media.

Also Read: gCaptain’s 2023 Naval Book Of The Year: Mao’s Army Goes To Sea

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