NorthStandard’s Taylor says risks on Danube are calling for special P&I attention

Drone attacks on the Danube estuary ports in late August indicated a broadening of Russian attempts to prevent Ukraine from exporting grain, but other rising risks in the field of regional maritime safety were calling for special attention from P&I, according to Nick Taylor, Head of Coastal & Inland, NorthStandard. In a recent editorial in Maritime Executive, Taylor noted that traffic had been growing quickly along the Danube in 2023, and as a result collisions, sinkings and groundings had become increasingly frequent. The resulting claims had been complicated by owners’ unfamiliarity with regional conditions and cultures, and a local code of silence following ‘hit and run’ incidents. 

Taylor said that, even before Russia ended the UN/Turkiye-brokered deal which for just under a year allowed Ukraine to ship out grain from three designated Black Sea ports, traffic passing through Ukraine’s port on the Danube was accounting for around about 25% of Ukraine’s grain exports.

“Ukraine transhipped 8.1m tonnes of grain through the port of Constanta in the first seven months of 2023 – over 40% of all grains handled by a port which already deals with exports from Romania itself, Hungary and Serbia,” said Taylor, noting that “in May alone, grain volumes through Danube ports hit 2.2m tonnes, overtaking exports made via the Black Sea corridor.”

With the Danube route now the principle exit option for Ukrainian grain, Russian firepower will impact Ukraine’s handling capabilities at the Ukraine ports of Reni and Izmail. However, recent Government projections still foresee Danube exports reaching at least 20m tonnes in 2023 – which would be three times the volumes achieved pre-war.

The routing switch, and the concomitant redeployment by North European owners of inland and coastal vessels to handle the new trade, have created new challenges for operational safety along the Danube, said Taylor.

“Where risk is concerned, the conflict itself dominates day-to-day reporting, but the course of events has also caused major vessel congestion. The vessels coming into the market are maintained to the highest standards, but their crews may have little or no experience of working on these waters. In one example, a vessel in convoy came out of the bend in heavy weather on the wrong side of the river, causing a collision.”

Taylor said that, with the port infrastructure under strain, there could also be disconnects between international operators and local authorities when incidents or accidents occurred. “Part of that is about lack of previous contact and different cultures when it comes to getting things done, but there have also been incidents where vessels have been hit, yet nobody seems to have seen anything”, he said.

Taylor said that, in one instance, NorthStandard set up a meeting between one of its Members and the Maritime Anti-Corruption Network to take forward an investigation into a hit and run incident that led a moored barge to sink. However, enquiries into the incident reached a dead end.   

He also noted that NorthStandard had been invited to intervene in incidents on several occasions this year, including to support refloating operations. “We’ve used our experience to coordinate and project manage, with our local correspondents helping to resolve issues where the infrastructure hasn’t been in place, whether that’s been through organizing crane lifts or refloats using balloons.”

“Clearly there are risks of war, and crew cover needs to reflect the exposure faced, but this is a market which takes its lead from the volume of business we do to support operations all along Europe’s coastline and inland waterways, as well as niche areas for growth identified elsewhere in the world.”

When asked whether insurers would respond to the rising frequency in Danube claims with regional premium rises, Taylor said that “we are not the only ones going through this. I cannot speak for others, although it’s possible insurers may become more risk averse in the Danube, with inevitable knock-on effect for charterers, and ultimately receivers. In the immediate term, however, where trade needs to be supported on heavily congested routes, Members operating in unfamiliar waters, different shipping cultures apply and crews feel understandable edginess, there are plenty of opportunities to showcase P&I services at their best.”