Last April, a 114.2 meters long vessel called LAUREN, just vanishes from earth. Days later, it re-surfaced on international AIS screens at the same spot where it ‘disappeared’. It then enters UAE waters to ‘rendezvous’ with two other ships on separate occasions, one operated by a US sanctioned company.
What reads like the beginning of a John le Carré novel turns stranger than fiction. Within around ten days at the end of April of last year, the LAUREN performs the magic trick not once but twice. During the flashes of dark seafaring, satellite imagery reveals the red vessel anchoring at an Iranian LPG port where it never meant to visit — it spoofed its signal claiming it’s heading for a port in Kuwait.
When it approaches an area less than two miles off the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the United Arab Emirates, its operators deem it suddenly safe to turn back on the AIS signal. There, it meets up with two vessels on two occasions, one of them is the GAS SELLAN, another liquefied petroleum gas tanker flagged in Vietnam.
US authorities see the controversy in the vessel’s operator and manager, the US sanctioned Vietnam Gas And Chemicals Transportation Corporation. It’s in the business of transportation services for petroleum, chemical products, LPG and bulk cargo.
Last December, Viet Nam Gas and Chemicals Trans Corp (PCT.HN, or previously called Cuu Long Petro Gas Service), was added to the US ‘specially designated nationals and blocked persons’ list (SDN), a compilation managed by the US Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) at the US Department of the Treasury. The list includes entities like terrorists and narcotics traffickers for which assets are blocked and US entities are prohibited from doing business with.
Operator rating sites like IFMAT now features the company with a ‘red alert’ label, citing “terror, weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and human rights violation”, on the basis of information by OFAC. “Significant transactions for the transport of petroleum products from Iran on or after November 5, 2018”, are mentioned. The 40-year-old Vietnamese executive Vo Ngoc Phung, involved in the company’s business, was also listed on OFAC’s SDN list.
I reached out to the company via email to ask for a statement in regards to the events last April. There was no response at the time of publication.
What may have happened?
On the grounds of forensic open data analysis, the behaviour three vessels displayed (see map & video with AIS signal records), “this is extremely strange”, one expert at a private satellite imaging company says.
After two days at port and its AIS signal turned off, the LAUREN then rendezvous with two vessels on separate occasions. Each time, draft data before and after the encounters suggest the vessel lost weight after the encounter, indicating some sort of transhippment of cargo may have taken place — and gained draft after being spotted in the Iranian port. The encounters occurred in UAE waters, a stone’s throw, around 200 to 500 meters, off the coast of Dubai.
The Strait of Hormuz is a busy place. It’s the world’s most important oil transit chokepoint because of its oil flow. In 2019, daily oil flow averaged at 21 million barrels a day, one-fifth of global petro liquids consumption. Going dark is by no means safe (neither for large fishing reefer vessels). However, due to growing fears of attacks such as tanker seizures or drone shoot-downs, some vessel operators frequently shut down the AIS system, 2019 Bloomberg data suggest.
However, in the case of last year’s events — the lack of AIS and the conspicuous at-sea encounters involving the LAUREN, the GAS SELLAN and the CROWN, now called Paula — let’s assume more devious intentions.
The behaviour fits a general pattern increasingly displayed by China recently to import US-sanctioned Iranian oil, helping to finance the Islamic Republic. According to a WSJ report from March, China was expected to import 918,000 barrels of oil per day in March.
It’s feasible China’s appetite may have broadened to include LPG exports. IHS Markit cites strong LPG demand by China amid a wave of new petrochemical plants added. The behaviour from last April, potentially using Vietnamese US sanctioned operators as a vehicle for LPG trade, is “suspicious”, analysts at VesselsValue say, a London-based shipping intelligence company.
The analyst was unable to say for certain if gas was being definitely transferred from ship to ship. However, “something is obviously going on”, she added.
“They [the three ships involved] would not have travelled to the Middle East just to sit in anchorage, idling. The changes in the vessels’ drafts — how deep the vessel is sitting in the water, down to how heavily loaded it is with cargo — looks suspicious”, the representative explains.
AIS was developed as a navigation safety tool, one expert says. Switching it off became a way of disguising where the ship’s position is. Additional information from AIS, such as ‘next port of call’ and so on, also disappears in this way, says Jakob P. Larsen, at BIMCO, one of the largest international shipping associations representing shipowners. “Any ship involved in nefarious activities can use it as a disguise. It’s very common among sanction busters or illegal fishing activities. When they feel they are safe again they switch it back on”.
Guidance issued by the US Departments of State and Treasury and the US Coast Guard state that “although, safety issues may at times prompt legitimate disablement of AIS transmission, vessels engaged in illicit activities may intentionally disable their AIS transponders or manipulate the data transmitted in order to mask their movement”.
Further investigation into links between management structures of Vietnam Gas and Chemicals Transportation Corp (CUU Long Petro Gas Service) and the three vessels involved in the affair last year shows its involvement — though, none of the company’s five own vessels were involved in the affair from last year.
VesselsValue’s intelligence shows the company operates as GAS SELLAN’s technical and ISM (International Safety Management) manager.
A tanker’s manager is the entity responsible for the technical side of things, such as maintenance, Larsen explains. The operator is more important for the commercial operation and, also for arranges the business of transshipments.
“The ship operator is responsible for the commercial operation of the ship, arranges the customers, and decide which cargoes to transport from A to B”, he adds.
In the case of the GAS SELLAN, the operator (and owner) is reported as FGAS Petro Co, according to VesselsValue’s database. The Hanoi City-based company was added to the ‘Dirty List’ last May, a composition of bad companies maintained by Burma Campaign UK, a human rights NGO. It includes entities that were seen to aid Myanmar’s military to continue to commit human rights violations.
FGAS Petro is an energy and shipping firm that owns the Golden Amor bulk carrier, which uses the Ahlone International Port Terminal in Yangon, a terminal owned by the Burmese military, responsible for a bloody crackdown this spring on unarmed protesters in the country, seeing hundreds killed.
Another vessel involved in last year’s April events, the CROWN, now the Vietnam flagged PAULA, is owned by Golden Lotus Oil Gas & Real, for which IMRRA’s commercial risk rating aimed at managers and operators, gives only a poor risk confidence rating of 47 per cent, making it a bold statement to the rest of the shipping business community, urging stakeholders to review it.
PetroVietnam Transportation Corp (PVTrans), also bears a considerable risk for potential business partners. PVTrans is alleged to have been involved in “knowingly transported Iranian petroleum-based products several times, using its tanker fleet”, so ITMAT, a human right organisation specialised in Iran.
For owners and managers involved in last year’s affair, it can have more far-reaching effects than seeing the freezing of assets on US soil, Larsen says.
“You may have cascading effects. If you are caught in sanctions-busting, the enforcement put upon you [as owner] by US authorities can cascade further on, depending on the case”.
Analysts at HawkEye360, the Virginia-based satellite company that develops capabilities in remote sensing and radio frequency (RF) satellite intelligence, says it found another LPG tanker, the OPEC ATHENA, involved in potentially US-sanction busting behaviour in 2019.
The firm used artificial intelligence to snoop out conspicuous transhipment activities. The affair in 2019 involved the OPEC ATHENA. Similarly to the case in April 2020, Vietnam Gas And Chemicals Transportation was involved. This time as an ISM manager of the vessel. IHS Maritime lists FGAS Petro as its owner and manager.
HawkEye360 cites evidence that the vessel visited Pars Petrochemical Port (port Asaluyeh), and turn off its AIS signal (similarly to the LAUREN last year) After seen anchoring in the UAE, it sailed to Dongguan, China where it arrived in December of 2019.
Methodology and timeline:
Timeline: step by step of AIS records and anchorage stoppages
19 — 21st of April, 2020: After the Lauren’ (IMO number 9249685) enters the Middle East Gulf on 19th April 2020, with a draft of 5.5 meters, it vanishes.
The gap in AIS signal records takes around two days to resolve, between April 19 and April 21. Then, when signalling resumes, it heads towards Dubai, in the opposite direction. The vessel now miraculously increases its draft to 6.9 meters on April 21 compared with April 19.
Satellite images suggest that the 20-year-old LPG tanker docked at ASALUYEH port, in Iran, while dodging AIS radar screens, loaded LPG and returns to the UAE EEZ (satellite images corroborate this) to meet the Vietnamese LPG vessel GAS SELLAN.
March 23rd, 2020: During the period of a bit more than a day, the two ships are spotted to linger side by side. Open source Sentinel 2 satellite images also show them floating seemingly motionless, peer-to-peer in open waters. Shortly after, on the 24th, the two ships depart from the area. The Lauren, heading north-west, is lighter and draft records show that the GAS SELLAN increased its draft after the meeting.
The Lauren heads back towards the Iranian port, again, officially signalling to be on its way to Shuwaikh Port in Kuwait. However, that is a ruse, we have seen before. It switches off its AIS signal again at the same location and only re-emerges on April 27, again, with a larger draft.
The GAS SELLAN (see image, above) enters the Persian Gulf with a draft of 5.4 on 20th April 2020. It signals Dubai as a destination. After anchoring off the coast, it leaves the Middle East Gulf on the 24th with a draft of 6.8, indicating it may have just accepted some new cargo. What cargo we can’t say for sure. Now it signals to be heading to Weifang, China.