Iran and Philippines Agree to Swap Crew on Seized Oil Tanker St Nikolas

oil tanker
St Nikolas (ex Suez Rajan) was seized in January after the ship took an Iranian oil cargo to the U.S. in 2023 (Iranian TV)

Published Mar 8, 2024 11:55 AM by The Maritime Executive


Iran has agreed to release the crew aboard the tanker St Nikolas that it seized in January 2024 in a retaliatory move after the U.S. seized a crude oil cargo from the ship in 2023. According to the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs, an agreement was reached that will permit the first batch of seafarers to return home this weekend followed by additional crewmembers later in March, but the manning agency must put other crewmembers aboard the tanker.

Eduardo Jose de Vega, Undersecretary of the DFA, announced in an interview on Philippine TV that nine of the Filipino crewmembers from the St Nikolas are expected to arrive in Manila on Sunday, followed by two more on March 13. One Filipino was able to return home in February meaning that there will be six Filipino crewmembers remaining on the tanker, but he believes they will also return home soon.

According to the report, the Philippines demanded the release of the crew which has been aboard the tanker since Iran seized the vessel on January 11, 2024. Iranian forces boarded the vessel by helicopter while it was approximately 50 nautical miles east of Sohar, Oman in the area between Iran and Oman, and ordered it to sail to Iran. In 2023, the same vessel then known as Suez Rajan was embroiled in a U.S. legal dispute that saw the cargo seized by a U.S. court and the tanker ordered to sail from Singapore to Houston to deliver the oil. The vessel was renamed in September 2023 as it departed from Texas.

The 158,000 dwt tanker managed by Empire Navigation of Greece had loaded a cargo at the Al Basrah terminal in Iraq and departed on January 8 bound for Aliaga, Turkey. It was reportedly operating under charter to Tupras, a Turkish oil refiner, and was operating with a crew of 18 Filipinos and one Greek cadet.

Iran asserted that the crew was not being held as hostages but were employees aboard the tanker which had been legally seized by a court order. They agreed to the demands of the DFA that the crew be permitted to leave the vessel at the end of their contracts.

The manning agency reported that it offered to double the salary of the crew while the vessel is in Iran. One crewmember reportedly declined the offer and was permitted to leave the vessel returning to the Philippines in February. The Greek cadet was permitted to return home shortly after the vessel was seized. The next nine Filipinos are coming home this week at the end of their contracts and according to the DFA will be replaced with non-Filipino crewmembers.

De Vega said they have been advised that the tanker will remain in Iran’s custody until its court decides what it will do with the ship and its cargo. The vessel needs to remain crewed he said but not necessarily with Filipinos. The replacement crew, of course, is also aware of the situation they are going into versus the Filipino crew which were aboard when the vessel was seized.

Earlier in the week Iran reported that its court ordered the confiscation of the oil aboard another tanker, the Advantage Sweet, which the country has been holding since April 2023. Reports said Iran is currently holding five tankers with approximately 90 crewmembers aboard.