Responding to the Front Altair Incident

Earlier this year the Front Altair, a vessel managed by International Tanker Management (ITM), a V.Group company, found itself on front pages and news screens around the world after the unthinkable happened – early in the morning, it was targeted by an explosive attack that started a fire on board the naphtha carrier. The master took the prudent measure of abandoning the vessel and the 23 crew members, who were safe and unharmed, were picked up by the nearby Hyundai Dubai. For several days, media speculation was rampant about the cause and nature of the incident, putting the Front Altair and the Kokuka Corageous (another vessel in the vicinity to experience a similar attack), at the centre of a complex geopolitical situation.

As ship managers, our first concern was for the safety of the crew, the vessel, and all those nearby. Within a matter of days, the crew were safely returned to the UAE, where the management office is based, and the vessel made safe.  Specialists were contracted to assist and counsel our colleagues who had gone through this traumatic situation. We spoke to Capt. Farhad Nanavaty, ITM’s Marine Safety & Quality Manager to find out how he and his team had dealt with one of the most dramatic events in recent shipping history.

Farhad explained how first and foremost, it was ITM’s culture of resilience and mutual support that enabled them to react effectively to the crisis. “Shipping is shipping, there are always surprises that can happen. The most important thing is being resilient – how we bounce back and come back from these things,” he said. This resilience came from a rigorous safety culture that ITM has taken concrete steps to instil.

In this safety culture, each individual on board is accountable for safety, and empowered to speak up and stop the job if necessary when witnessing potential risks. Elements of this include regular safety meetings and seminars, a ‘safety catch of the month’ award, participation in the HiLo project, and a safety climate audit conducted in partnership with Lloyds Register. Collectively, these initiatives have resulted in more than a 70% reduction in injury-causing accidents.

Thanks to the strong culture instilled in the crew, they were all keen to return to the vessel when they could, to discharge the cargo and get the ship to a dry dock for repairs.

“We gave support to people who went through such an occurrence. They had a sense of belonging and wanting to go back on board the ship, getting things done, getting things back to normal that was very much appreciated by everyone.”

For ITM, co-operation between parties was also essential. “The most important thing is to have external support from government, ports, class societies and others, all of whom we have strong ties with.” In the first hours and days of the incident, there was a great deal of coordination with external parties necessary, such as salvors to bring ship to safe ports and anchorage, as well as dealing with a lot of government officials.

This co-ordination was achieved with robust reporting – through good teamwork with Frontline, strong bonds between manager and owner, with all decisions taken as a group. The team held daily conference calls and regular discussions to co-ordinate operations.

One of the main challenges, from a ship management point of view, was keeping the rest of the fleet safe while the team focused on the unfolding events on board the Front Altair. “We needed to bring things back to normal, but also focus on the rest of the ships we manage and not drop focus on any ship that we manage.” This was achieved by having clear communication throughout the team, and the team coming together to keep regular operations going smoothly even while letting the Front Altair team focus on the unfolding events. “Everyone was very in tune, and ready to chip in so that the team dealing with the incident could focus on it and everyone else picked up the slack.”

Preparedness is key in achieving this. Having seen similar incidents in May earlier that year, ITM carried out drills and training in office to anticipate how to deal with an incident of this kind – even though it was highly unexpected. “Nobody could have ever imagined that such a thing could happen, however as they always say, we have to be prepared for the unexpected” Farhad remarked.

As soon as the fire was put out by the salvage vessel, our superintendent was the first to board the ship along with the salvage team. Eventually normal operations were resumed, and the ship was quickly ready to go to the yard for repairs, the cargo having been safely discharged – a testament to the teamwork, planning and close co-operation between ITM, owners, crew, and staff ashore. As the famous adage by Peter Drucker goes, ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’ – and nowhere is this more true than in a crisis. Our teams are well trained, drilled, and prepared for any eventuality – but it’s the culture that ultimately ensures we can execute our strategy effectively, and that we can pull together in an emergency. This was a great example of culture in action, and demonstrates the values that we work to instil every day at V.Group.