The relative calm in the Gulf of Guinea appears to have been broken with reports of an ongoing incident with unknown boarders attempting to seize control of a product tanker that was laying off the coast of DR Congo near Point Noire, according to The Maritime Executive. The French and British monitoring agency Maritime Domain Awareness for Trade Gulf of Guinea (MDAT-GoG) issued a warning which has been followed up by additional warnings to mariners to avoid the area offshore near the southern border of Congo and Angola.
Details on the incident remain scarce, but both MDAT-GoG and private security agencies are reporting that pirates approached and successfully boarded a product tanker overnight between March 25 and March 26. Accounts vary between three and five armed boarders. MDAT-GoG reported that the crew mustered and was able to take refuge in the vessel’s citadel. In their update, they said five armed persons had boarded from a single skiff and remain aboard the tanker attempting to hijack the vessel. They are reporting the incident as ongoing while a rescue effort was being mounted for the crew.
MDAT-GoG has not confirmed the name of the vessel and because the incident is ongoing with the crew still in danger, the details of the vessel are being withheld. The tanker is believed to have been laying off the coast after having departed the port several days ago. The last reported position was approximately 140 nautical miles west of Port Point Noire.
This would be the first confirmed boarding and hijacking in four months. In November, a South Korean-owned product tanker B. Ocean was also boarded near Cote d’Ivoire. The pirates stole oil from the vessel and damaged equipment. The Italian Navy assisted the product tanker in that incident.
MDAT-GoG has issued only five additional reports in the past 90 days for the west coast of Africa. Two involved attempted boardings that were unsuccessful in the northern reaches of the Gulf of Guinea. Those incidents took place at the end of January and the beginning of February near Cameroon. The others involved reports of theft aboard near Takaoradi, Ghana, and one incident near Angola.
The ICC International Maritime Bureau (IMB) in its 2022 annual report said there had only been 19 incidents in the Gulf of Guinea in 2022. They called for continuing vigilance however saying that the threat remained in the region. Highlighting the continuing danger in the region, the Nigerian Department of State Services in conjunction with other security agencies reports in the last week they have taken into custody eight suspects all believed to be part of criminal gangs in several raids. All of them were armed, mostly with AK47s or in one case a pump action rifle. In one instance the suspect had 432 rounds of ammunition, and another had 468 rounds of ammunition, and all of them had large sums of cash.
In another report, TradeWinds identified the 13,700-dwt product carrier, Monjasa Reformer (built 2003), as the vessel boarded by pirates on Saturday night 260 km off Pointe Noir, Republic of the Congo.
The Liberia-flag vessel is owned by Denmark’s Monjasa and managed by Montec Ship Management.
“At the time of the incident, the vessel was sitting idle with 16 crew members on board,” Monjasa said in a statement on Tuesday.
Montec was notified by the crew that pirates had boarded the tanker.
All the seafarers were secure inside the ship’s citadel.
Montec is now working with all relevant maritime authorities in the region, including several local and international navies.
“On board communications channels are currently down and we are working with the local authorities to establish communication to understand the situation on board and provide all the support needed by the crew to overcome these dreadful events,” Monjasa said.
“Monjasa will keep working closely with Montec Ship Management and the authorities during this difficult situation and in the aftermath. All our thoughts are with the crew and relatives in these hours.”
The Monjasa Reformer is employed in West Africa as part of Monjasa’s global marine fuels operations and is currently carrying marine gas oil, very low sulphur fuel oil, high sulphur fuel oil products on board.
There have been no reports of damage to the ship or cargo.
The Danish group said the safety and well-being of crews and contractors is its first priority, not least in West Africa where piracy is a known risk factor.
In order to minimise the risk of personal injury, as well as operating losses due to assault, the group has implemented an anti-piracy policy which includes an extensive description of how the crew and th officers should act in case of piracy attacks.
The policy comprises measures to be taken both during and after a possible assault.
Earlier, security provider Diaplous Group had said: “A vessel reported being boarded by five armed persons, who approached the vessel by one skiff.”
EOS Risk, a UK-based security provider, said the ship had been hijacked.
The IMB has now issued a “missing tanker” report for the Monjasa Reformer.
“On 25 March 2023, the tanker has been attacked and boarded by armed pirates.”
“The owners have lost contact/communication with their tanker,” it added.
IMB said the ship is painted “with black topside, black vertical sides with an orange stripe all around the hull, black funnel with orange funnel logo.”
The tanker had an estimated 3.8m freeboard at the time, and was drifting, according to security company Ambrey.
Ambrey understands that the French Navy has been assisting with the search.
According to automatic identification system data, the ship last broadcast a signal nearly two days ago when it was underway, laden with cargo and headed to “Congo offshore”.
The waters off Africa’s west coast — specifically the Gulf of Guinea — were once considered the world’s piracy hotspot, but since 2022 criminal activity has fallen off considerably.
The International Maritime Bureau said there were just 19 incidents of piracy in 2022, down from 35 in 2021 and 84 in 2020.
There have been few high-profile piracy incidents this year — primarily, ships being fired upon or approached by suspicious boats — though authorities and analysts urge shipowners to continue to be cautious in the area.