Smooth Sea 22 was not the ship it claimed to be

When Thai-flagged oil products tanker Smooth Sea 22 (IMO 9870991) suffered an explosion and a subsequent fire on 17th January, few realised that the event would expose a case of potential ship-identity fraud.

On January 24th the International Maritime Organization was reported to have declared the ship’s IMO number to be non-valid after it emerged that the ship that was masquerading as 2018-built ship was in fact built in 1986 and was suspected of previously being known as the 4,4821 gt Hai Zhou 168 (IMO 8514045), and before that as the Smooth Sea 28.

The oil products tanker was a total loss and the insured value of the vessel was put at $30m. The explosion occurred at a ship repair facility on the Mae Klong river, west of Bangkok, Thailand. The tanker was undergoing maintenance repairs at the time and the explosion apparently occurred during welding works. The explosion killed two, while five remain missing.

As long ago as March 2022 a UN Security Council panel had outlined in a report that the tanker was linked to a North Korean vessel identity-laundering scam. Details were first published in a C4ADS report.

The C4ADS publication identified a convoluted sequence of identity changes. The Subblic (IMO 8126082), recommended for designation by the UN Panel of Experts because it was responsible for numerous deliveries of fuel to North Korea, laundered its identity into the Hai Zhou 168 (IMO 8514045) in mid-2019. It was reported to be continuing to engage in sanctionable activity. Its disguise enabled it to operate openly, even in Taiwan’s waters. However, with the Subblic having become the Hai Zhou 168, that meant that if the Hai Zhou 168 wanted to continue sailing, which it did, it would have to become known as something else, with a different IMO number. Formerly known as the Smooth Sea 28, the Hai Zhou 168 decided to become the “newly built” Smooth Sea 22, said C4ADS.

In recent years, C4ADS said that it had observed at least 11 ships engaging in elaborate schemes to create fraudulent ship registrations with the IMO. These were subsequently used to launder the identity of vessels that have been associated with illicit activities. “In particular, we have seen networks involved in DPRK sanctions evasion and smuggling use these tactics to avoid the heightened scrutiny of the sanctions regime”, C4ADS said.

Although ships regularly change their names when they are moved to new owners, and sometimes when they aren’t, the IMO number is considered inviolate, the “vehicle identification number” of the sea. If it becomes a matter for speculation whether a ship with one IMO number is the same ship as one with the same IMO number a few years ago, many aspects (including insurance and reporting) related to the global shipping industry would become subject to important caveats.

The ”2018-built” Smooth Sea 22 was reported as entered with Shipowners Club, but since it was apparently really the ex-Hai Zhou 168, and was in fact 37 years old rather than five years old, the validity of the insurance policy will surely become a matter of debate.

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