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First shipment of Ukraine grain will test political deal

Lloyd’s List Intelligence data shows tugs are being positioned to start moving vessels imminently in Chornomorsk, which is expected to be the first port readied for grain exports

A shipment of grain is expected to leave Chornomorsk on Friday. However, the political test run comes ahead of crucial details yet to be agreed. Until standard operating procedures are nailed down, the rapid ramping-up of grain exports will be slow to follow

THE first ship carrying Ukrainian grain through the safe corridor agreed under an unprecedented political deal brokered last week is expected to leave the port of Chornomorsk on Friday.

The shipment, which will be carried on an as yet unidentified vessel already inside the port with grain loaded prior to the outbreak of war, will test the tentative political agreements in place to provide safe passage for vessels under plans being closely monitored by international observers.

While UN diplomats are pushing for the initial voyage to take place on Friday in order to show progress in the deal, crucial details yet to be fully established will likely prevent an immediate ramping-up of shipments.

Insurers are still waiting for the detail of Standard Operating Procedures to be clarified and until those logistical issues and detailed outlines of safeguarding procedures are disseminated, charters will not be agreed and insurers will not be underwriting shipments.

Speaking at a UN press conference on Thursday afternoon, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Martin Griffiths said the required details were being worked out under the auspices of the Joint Coordination Centre in Istanbul, which was formally opened on Wednesday.

“There's a lot of detail still to be to be gone into if we are to see those ships move safely, but we are hopeful the first ship movements will happen [Friday],” said Mr Griffiths.

Detailing the initial stages of the plan, Mr Griffiths confirmed that those vessels already loaded with grain inside Chornomork, Odesa and Yuzhnyi would be the first ships to leave before more vessels are allowed into port after inspections by third-party Turkish officials operating under the JCC.

According to Neil Roberts, head of marine and aviation at the Lloyd’s Market Association, crucial details must be clarified before shipments can be expected to ramp up to the levels required by politicians, but once those details are in place war risk insurers would be ready to ensure shipments move quickly.

“We are still waiting for the standard operating procedures for shipping to be clarified, but subject to suitable safeguards and understanding what's happening, for insurance this becomes a question of matching risk to capacity. This is the sort of risks that the war risk market is set up to handle,” he said speaking on the Lloyd’s List Podcast due to air on Friday.

“There are some logistical details to be worked through including the availability of personnel to handle and unload the grain and the reactivation of vessels, plus there's the question of charters for fresh tonnage. But once all these things are in place and the test voyage has occurred and people can see the system is working, then it should be a question of repeat,” said Mr Roberts.

While the grain corridor has been created as a commercially viable operation, the involvement of UN agencies including the World Food Programme which has already arranged to charter much of the grain for urgent humanitarian needs has been crucial to the establishment of the plan.

The International Maritime Organization has also been leading the operational establishment of the JCC in Istanbul with IMO’s director of legal affairs Fred Kenny leading the UN’s efforts on the ground in facilitating the parties’ efforts to operationalise the agreement.

It is understood that Mr Kenny has been instrumental in coordinating industry involvement, including the insurance sector, to ensure that details of the plan will result in a rapid deployment of commercial vessels.

According to the UN it is hoped that the three ports will quickly re-establish pre-war export levels which represent 65% of Ukraine’s total grain exports, following the initial test voyages.

Approximately 25m tonnes of grain are waiting to be exported once the corridor is open.

“I am hopeful that their swift collective action will translate quickly and directly into much-needed relief for the most vulnerable food insecure people around the world,” said Mr Griffiths. 

While the political and logistical details are still being ironed out, operations inside the ports are being prepared for an imminent uptick in traffic.

Chornomorsk, which is expected to be the first port prepared for grain exports, has seen three tugs appear in its waters over the past several days.

Moldova-flagged vessels Rapid (IMO: 8600090), Ril (IMO: 8116441) and Big (IMO: 8600117) switched on their Automatic Identification System signals between July 26 and 27 after being almost completely offline since March 1.

Many vessels turned off their AIS, a practice called going dark, at the onset of the invasion, and more vessels have dropped off the radar as the war drags on.

Big and Ril both list Ukrainian company LLC UKRfleet-Service as their registered owner.

Each vessel was operating in the area at the time the war broke out.

Ril shut its AIS off again on July 27, while Big and Rapid are still actively reporting.

Pilot ship Pilot 2 appeared briefly in the same area as the tugs on July 26.

Bulk carriers and general cargoships reporting AIS in Chornomorsk have shown no changes in behaviour over the past three days.

A Palau-flagged salvage tug, Australia (IMO: 8501385), appeared today in the port of Odesa. 

The vessel is owned by a United Arab Emirates-based company Carrington Tug, but lists Ukrainian Black Sea Towing LLC as the technical manager and third party operator.

Australia only reported an AIS signal once since the end of February on June 15. It came back online this morning and has been reporting its movements since.

Historical vessel tracking data shows the tug previously operated at the Odesa port.

Non-operational Ukrainian ports have been largely barren since the outbreak of war. Russia’s naval blockade decimated ship activity, and many vessels operating, or stranded, in the area have shut off AIS, making them difficult to track.

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