As warships move into the Red Sea, carriers delay or re-route 100+ box ships

By Charlie Bartlett 18/12/2023

As US warships steam for the Gulf of Aden, Cosco-owned OOCL has stopped “cargo acceptance to and from Israel, with immediate effect, until further notice”, while over 100 vessels have either delayed or re-routed voyages rather than risk a Red Sea transit.

This morning, Flexport CEO Ryan Petersen – whose company has some 2,206 teu due to transit the Red Sea in the coming days – said that around 78 vessels were “delayed and awaiting orders”, while some 46 containerships had re-routed round the Cape of Good Hope, adding as much as four weeks to each voyage.

His tally may be an underestimate, Arabic-language newspaper Aawsat is reporting as many as 55 have redirected, while some 77 vessels transited the Suez Canal yesterday, it said this morning.

The White House responded to Maersk’s Friday announcement to pause Red Sea transits, saying the shipping line would “weigh the balance of risk and benefit… all over the world”, and the US has dispatched the ‘Ike’ carrier group to the Red Sea, under the auspices of Operation Prosperity Guardian, tasked with protecting US-flagged merchant vessels set to transit the waterway.

On Saturday, US, UK and French warships shot down more than a dozen Houthi drones. However, Maersk appeared to halt its US-flagged vessels – eligible for US naval protection – and direct them away from the Red Sea.

Other shipping lines have, unsurprisingly, followed suit: Hapag-Lloyd and CMA CGM, which have both had vessels fired upon, issued similar notices and were then joined by MSC, which reported that the 2,500 teu MSC Palatium III, charted by Messina Line, was attacked in the Red Sea on 15 December.

It said: “All crew are safe, with no reported injuries, meanwhile the vessel suffered limited fire damage and has been taken out of service.

“Due to this incident and to protect the lives and safety of our seafarers, until the Red Sea passage is safe, MSC ships will not transit the Suez Canal eastbound and westbound. “Already some services will be rerouted to go via the Cape of Good Hope instead,” added the Geneva-headquartered carrier .

These moves prompted one US commentator to suggest shipping lines could be trying to provoke intervention from international navies.

Campbell University maritime expert Sal Mercogliano commented: “Either they’re trying to force European, American and maybe Asian navies to react to this, to come and defend their ships… or this is working out as profitability for them.”

US national security adviser Jake Sullivan said at the weekend that the Houthis were “…pulling the trigger, so to speak” but were “being handed the gun by Iran”, which “…has a responsibility to take steps itself to cease these attacks”.

Meanwhile, the hijacking of a Bulgarian bulk carrier, the Malta-flagged Ruen, has prompted concerns that Somali piracy may make a return.

While some have speculated that an alliance may have formed between Somalis and their close neighbours, mere opportunism seems likelier.

During its 2008-2012 heyday, piracy off Somalia – a majority-Sunni Islam country – was overwhelmingly funded via Sunni-majority Dubai, making an alliance with Houthi Shi’ites appear less likely.