Dark Fleet Tanker Runs Aground Near Singapore

Courtesy KSOP Karimun

Published Dec 7, 2023 10:27 PM by The Maritime Executive

The "dark fleet" tankers that carry oil from Russia, Venezuela and Iran are a serious inconvenience for Western sanctions enforcement, but for maritime stakeholders and coastal states, they are a serious safety and pollution risk. The average age of these vessels trends high, especially in the Venezuelan and Iranian trades, where the average ship is 20 years old - the typical retirement point for respectable tankers. Aging equipment and light regulation tend to produce accidents, and dark fleet tankers do get into trouble - like the tanker Liberty, which went aground in the Strait of Malacca last weekend. 

The Liberty is a Cameroon-flagged Suezmax of 23 years of age, and according to TankerTrackers.com, she is carrying a cargo of one million barrels of Venezuelan fuel oil.  AIS data confirms that Liberty has a "dark fleet" trading pattern. She  called at the Russian tank farm complex at Ust-Luga in June, then spent August, September and October driving in geometric circles off the Angolan coast. The location has been previously identified with the Venezuelan "dark fleet" trade, in which tankers fake their location in Angola in order to hide their true operations in Latin America.

After her business in the Atlantic basin, Liberty rounded the Cape of Good Hope and crossed the Indian Ocean, arriving Singapore on November 24 and anchoring north of Karimunbesar Island. On December 2, she departed the anchorage and headed towards shore, making four knots. The tanker promptly ran aground on a charted shoal in 11 meters of water, AIS tracking appears to show. 

Liberty's final trackline from her anchorage to the shoal (Chart courtesy Pole Star)

According to regional port authority KSOP Karimun, the grounding occurred at about 1100 hours local time. Indonesian authorities said that Liberty was carrying 130,000 tonnes of fuel oil and 31 crewmembers, and had gone aground on a rocky bottom. 

Five tugboats were dispatched to the scene to assist. A spokesperson for KSOP Karimun told local media that the responders are waiting for the shipowner to transfer off some of the fuel oil to another vessel, which would reduce Liberty's draft and improve the odds of refloating her. Meanwhile, the port authority has prepared an oil containment boom as a precautionary measure. 

As of Thursday, the ship's AIS transmission still showed her in the same location. 

It is the second time in little more than a year that a dark fleet tanker has gone aground in the Straits of Malacca and Singapore. In October 2022, the 21-year-old tanker Young Yong went aground near gas pipelines off Takong Kecil in the Riau Islands. The U.S. Treasury blacklisted the Young Yong for involvement in a Venezuelan-Iranian fuel trading scheme in November 2022, adding complexity for the salvors. The vessel was refloated safely later that month.