Commercial shipping has been disrupted the world over ever since Iran-backed Houthi rebels began launching strikes against vessels in the Red Sea—and some crews are now resorting to unorthodox methods to evade their attacks.
While some ships have opted to avoid Houthi attacks entirely by rerouting around the Cape of Good Hope, many have risked going through the Red Sea, armed with a message for the Houthis: Where ships normally list their “destination,” some crews have opted to write messages meant to dissuade the Houthis.
The Houthis have been attacking vessels in the region but have said they would stop if Israel ends its bombardment of Gaza, so some crews are displaying messages meant to signal that they have no ties with Israel.
That’s the route the CL Hibiscus, a bulk carrier underway as of Thursday, is taking. “NO CONTACT ISRAEL,” CL Hibiscus wrote as its destination, according to maritime tracking data viewed by The Daily Beast. The vessel, registered in Liberia, left Saudi Arabia earlier this week.
Innova, a crude oil tanker registered in Vietnam, also listed its destination as “NO CONTACT ISRAEL,” according to data viewed by The Daily Beast.
“ARMGUARD ON,” Haian West, a container ship registered in Vietnam, had written as its destination, in an apparent attempt to signal to the Houthis the crew is armed and to not attack. The ship departed from Yemen.
The Atout, a container ship registered in Liberia, likewise noted it had “ARM GUARD O/B” (onboard.) A crude oil tanker that departed Egypt early this month also listed its destination as “ARMED GUARDS ONBOARD,” according to maritime tracking data viewed by The Daily Beast this week.
Countless others have been borrowing the tactic as well, while other crews are turning off their tracking entirely, Marco Forgione, Director General at The Institute of Export & International Trade, a UK trade body for exporters and importers, told The Daily Beast.
Some ships have noted in the destination “CHINESE CREW,” like the Xin Hai Tong 33, a bulk carrier, which listed its destination as “ALL CHINESE CREW.” (The Houthis have claimed that they are not going to attack ships from China and Russia.)
Taking the creative path and trying to send the Houthis messages to avoid certain ships shows just how desperate some of the tankers have become, Matt Smith, Lead Oil Analyst at Kpler, a global trade intelligence and analytics firm, told The Daily Beast.
“This is just one more measure that these crews are trying to take to avoid any type of attack on their tanker,” Smith said.
The hiring of armed guards on board is a tactic that has been used to deter pirates in the past, said Smith. But altering the destination to broadcast a lack of association with Israel or a country entangled in a war is an entirely new trend, Smith said.
“We have very grave concerns over the potential for this to escalate.”
“You’ll see that perhaps offshore Nigeria… just to kind of dissuade pirates,” Smith told The Daily Beast. “But it is unusual to get messages putting something like ‘not to do with Israel.’”
The measures comes at a time when diplomacy and military operations aimed at stopping the attacks in the Red Sea have failed to insulate global commerce from the volatility of the region as Israel continues to wage war in Gaza following Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks on Israel. And with the Houthi rebels’ ultimatum that they won’t stop until Israel stops its military campaign in Gaza, the region could be in deadlock for some time, analysts say.
For now, the safest bet for ships would be rerouting around the Cape for Good Hope in Africa, Forgione, the Director General at The Institute of Export & International Trade, told The Daily Beast. But that comes with additional costs, prompting some crews to take their chances in the Red Sea.
“It’s a very low probability that your tanker is going to get targeted, and there’s also the added element of security there to with the U.S. Navy etc,” Smith said. “The combination of those factors seem to make it attractive enough to continue those journeys, rather than the inconvenience and the fuel costs and the time costs to go all the way around the Cape of Good Hope.”
Some global shipping companies have been diverting their routes to avoid the Red Sea entirely. Maersk and other shipping giants have directed their vessels to take significantly longer routes around Africa just to avoid the turmoil of the Red Sea. Chinese state-owned shipping giant COSCO has reportedly stopped shipping to Israeli ports as of early this month, according to Globes. The Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) has also said it would be avoiding the Red Sea.
In addition to the dangers posed by the Houthis, insurance costs for vessels that choose to navigate the Red Sea are soaring, according to data shared with The Daily Beast from The Institute of Export & International Trade. While usually insurance costs are about 0.1-.2 percent of the value of the vessel each journey, they are right now over 1 percent—and climbing. “That’s a huge increase in the costs,” Forgione said.
There has been approximately a 70 percent decrease in cargo going through the Red Sea in recent days, while the number of ships going around the Cape of Good Hope have gone up 300 percent, according to the institute.
Maersk CEO Vincent Clerc predicted that the disruption to global shipping may continue for a few more months.
“It could also be longer because it’s so unpredictable how this situation is actually developing,” Clerc said at a Reuters event in Davos this week.
Feeling the Squeeze
As global shipping giants and oil tankers work around the stoppages and risks, the world will likely see cascading effects in the coming days, warned Forgione.
“We have very grave concerns over the potential for this to escalate,” Forgione said. “The fear of a potential escalation feeds through into the shipping costs and into insurance costs. This is a difficult situation which is getting more complicated, more complex, and difficult as time passes.”
Some companies could face financial ruin. Many small businesses that are members of the institute are already feeling the squeeze from the disruptions, Forgione told The Daily Beast.
This month, the United States and a coalition of allies have taken action against the Houthis, going after supplies and loaded missiles in Yemen that appear poised for attack in order to try to destroy the Houthis’ capability of launching attacks. So far, the United States has conducted at least six attacks since mid-January, when the Biden administration first responded.
The White House has acknowledged that at least part of the goal in striking back against the Houthis is about helping international shipping continue without incident.
“We have to be able to act in our own self defense. Not just for our ships and our sailors but for merchant ships and merchant sailors and international shipping in the Red Sea,” White House National Security Council Coordinator John Kirby told reporters in a briefing Thursday.
But the crisis does not appear to be easing up despite U.S. efforts, with President Joe Biden himself seemingly unconvinced the approach is working.
“Are they stopping the Houthis? No,” Biden told reporters Thursday.