Vessel Issues Distress Call as it is Harassed by Iranian Speed Boats

Iran harasses merchant vessel
Iranian fast boats approached and sailed near the merchant ship (US Navy 5th Fleet photo)

Published Jun 4, 2023 6:54 PM by The Maritime Executive

An unidentified merchant vessel issued a distress call on Sunday afternoon, June 4, while transiting the Strait of Hormuz with U.S. and UK forces responding. The vessel reported it was being harassed by Iranian fast-attack boats but it appears no attempt was made to board or seize the vessel and they ultimately withdrew. This comes as international forces have declared their intent to increase patrols in the region in response to Iran’s aggressive actions toward commercial shipping.

The U.S. Naval Forces Central Command for the U.S. 5th Fleet reports that the merchant vessel made a radio distress call at 4:56 p.m. local time. The vessel was in the Strait of Hormuz and reported that three speed boats with armed personnel were approaching and following the vessel at a close distance. The ship however appears to have been continuing on its course.

The U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS McFaul and the UK Royal Navy frigate HMS Lancaster both received the distress call. The Lancaster launched a helicopter to provide surveillance. The U.S. directed a Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft to the scene and it was monitoring the activity.

After approximately an hour, the U.S. Navy reports the situation “de-escalated.”  The vessel reported that the fast-attract craft, which the navies said they believed were from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy, departed the scene. The merchant ship continued to transit the Strait of Hormuz without further incident.

The U.S. report did not identify the vessel but later analysis by the Associated Press suggests it was not a tanker as originally suspected but a dry bulk carrier. AP reports that the Marshall Islands-flagged Venture erratically changed course as it traveled through the strait at the time of the incident. The Venture is a 61,000 dwt bulker managed by Centrofin Management of Greece.


Highlighting its increased presence, US CENTCOM released a photo of a USCG cutter, Royal Saudi Naval missile corvette, and an unmanned craft on patrol in the Arabian Gulf last week (US Navy 5th Fleet photo)


The U.S. Navy said last month that it was increasing its presence in the region after reporting that Iran had seized two foreign-flagged tankers. The Iranians also reported taking control of a third vessel, which was not independently confirmed by the Central Command or Western sources.  The U.S. has destroyers, Coast Guard cutters, and maritime patrol aircraft all stationed in the area and recently highlighted its increased use of unmanned systems for monitoring activities.

In response to a question in Parliament last week, the UK government said that it is also increasing its activity in the Persian Gulf. Baroness Goldie who is the Minister of State, Ministry of Defense responded to a question about the UK activity in the Persian Gulf citing the presence of the Lancaster, which it was said regularly patrols the Gulf of Oman and through the Strait of Hormuz. The response highlights that “The UK is currently increasing defensive maritime patrols in the Strait of Hormuz to provide additional security for maritime commerce in the region.”

Last week, Iran said it planned to increase its activities in the region declaring that it was forming a naval alliance. Iranian state media said Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Bahrain, would be joining the effort along with India and Pakistan. They highlighted a statement from the United Arab Emirates released by its news service that announces it had withdrawn its participation from Combined Maritime Task Forces as of February. 

The Combined Maritime Task Forces has 38 member countries with a U.S. spokesperson highlighting that the UAE was still a member. They said the UAE would have to comment on its level of participation but that it remained a member. The Wall Street Journal reported that frustrations were growing in the region after Iran’s recent seizures with the UAE reportedly complaining and calling for increased activities from the U.S. and other Western allies.

The news outlet Breaking Defense issued an exclusive report saying that U.S. officials responded to Iran’s announcement that it would be forming an alliance by saying it “defies reason.”

Forces believed linked to the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy previously carried out similar harassing movements around vessels of the U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard in the region. Similar to today’s activity, they sailed close to the U.S. vessels, cutting in front of them, provoking reactions from the U.S. including in at least one case warning shots, but like today after a show of force withdrew.