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First Asia-bound Russian oil cargoes seen loaded on VLCCs to avoid Red Sea risks

Two very large crude carriers are in the Mediterranean for ship-to-ship transfers of Urals crude from smaller tankers that loaded at Russian Baltic and Black Sea ports, which will then transit around the Cape of Good Hope

More than 70 tankers have diverted from the Red Sea since US-led military strikes on Houthis began on January 12, according to data and commodities analytics provider Vortexa

THE first signs have emerged that Asia-bound Russian cargoes will avoid the Suez Canal, as attacks on commercial shipping from Yemen’s Houthi militants escalate.

At least two very large crude carriers have arrived in international waters in the Mediterranean off Kalamata, Greece, to consolidate smaller, aframax crude cargoes from Russia’s Baltic and Black ports via ship-to-ship transfers.

These ships will sail around the Cape of Good Hope as fully laden VLCCs are too large to go through the Suez Canal.

The last time Russian Urals crude was transferred on to VLCCs was more than six months ago, according to analysis from Vortexa, a commodities and data analytics provider.

Southbound Russian cargoes sailing for India and China are the only oil trade flow seen uninterrupted over the past four weeks, as Houthi missile and drone attacks on vessels transiting the Red Sea, Bab el Mandeb Strait and Gulf of Aden intensify.

Since US and UK military strikes targeted Houthis on land, shipments of LNG, LPG and other northbound oil and product cargoes have slumped, as charterers avoid the high-risk waterway fearing retaliation.

Red Sea vessel activity measured on January 28 was the lowest since shipowners and charterers began rerouting vessels away in November, Lloyd’s List Intelligence data shows.

Djibouti-flagged VLCC Ligera (IMO: 9237072) transferred a cargo from aframax Nautilus (IMO: 9434890) on January 12, and another from suezmax Julia A (IMO: 9236353) on January 29, in international waters off Kalamata, Greece, vessel-tracking showed.

Ligera had sailed through the Red Sea and Suez Canal and into the Mediterranean in late December, as Houthis stepped up their attacks on all vessel types and a US-led naval taskforce, Operation Prosperity Guardian began.

A second VLCC, Achelous (IMO: 9283801arrived in the region a week ago to load Urals cargo, according to Vortexa, but has yet to undertake any transfers.

Both VLCCs are part of the dark fleet* of anonymously owned, elderly ships that ply sanctions-circumventing trades.

Ligera was previously used for shipping and storing Venezuelan oil to China.



Before the Houthi’s disrupted traffic, up to 8.2m barrels per day of oil and oil products transited the Red Sea via the Bab el Mandeb chokepoint, according to Vortexa. 

That included 2.8m barrels per day of southbound Russian crude destined for Asia and India, and 1.1m bpd of northbound diesel and jet fuel from the Middle East Gulf for delivery to Europe and the Mediterranean.

Seventy tankers have now diverted from the Red Sea since US-led strikes on January 12, Vortexa calculations show.

That included 42 northbound and 28 southbound, data shows.


* Lloyd’s List defines a tanker as part of the dark fleet if it is aged 15 years or over, anonymously owned and/or has a corporate structure designed to obfuscate beneficial ownership discovery, solely deployed in sanctioned oil trades, and engaged in one or more of the deceptive shipping practices outlined in US State Department guidance issued in May 2020. The figures exclude tankers tracked to government-controlled shipping entities such as Russia’s Sovcomflot, or Iran’s National Iranian Tanker Co, and those already sanctioned.

Download our explainer on the different risk profiles of the dark fleet here 


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