Family demand answers over seafarer’s disappearance from dark tanker
The family of an Indian seafarer who went missing from a Cook Islands-flagged tanker engaged in Russian oil trades earlier this month say their questions about what happened are not being answered
The case of Vikram Patel, an Indian able seaman who disappeared from the tanker he was working on board shipping Russian oil to India and Türkiye, has raised questions about operations on board so-called dark fleet ships and the responsibilities of the anonymous owners running them and their flag state regulators
THE family of an Indian seafarer who went missing while working aboard a Cook Islands-flagged tanker that was shipping non-price cap compliant Russian oil say they cannot establish the basic facts about his disappearance from his employers.
Able seaman Vikram Patel, 42, working since February on medium-range product tanker Mando One (IMO: 9291640) was reported missing on August 10 as the vessel sailed through the Greater Belt region, triggering an unsuccessful seven-hour search and rescue effort from both Swedish and Danish authorities.
Mando One is one of the 485 tankers defined by Lloyd’s List as being part of the dark fleet*, shipping sanctioned Russian, Venezuelan or Iranian oil via an anonymously owned vessel without known P&I cover. The anonymous nature of ownership and unknown insurer underscores the uncertainty about compensation for Patel’s family and who will cover search costs.
Mando One is managed by Dubai-based Radiating World Shipping Services, along with a further 16 Cook Islands-flagged tankers, all deployed in lifting Russian oil to Türkiye and India.
All 17 tankers joined the newly incorporated Radiating World Shipping Services between December 2022 through to June this year, after the imposition of sanctions on Russian oil and shipping by the EU27, the UK and Group of Seven industrialised countries plus Australia, between December and February.
The case of Vikram Patel highlights the industry’s diffident response to seafarer deaths, but also illustrates the difficulties in securing answers from anonymous owners and insurers and the role that flag states play in enforcing standards from them.
“My son also told us (me and my daughters) that this new chief officer is always misbehaving and abusing regularly,” Patel’s mother Kamla Patel wrote in an undated letter to the India embassy in Copenhagen, seen by Lloyd’s List.
“My son was a very polite person and loved by his family very much.”
The family have not received any response from the Indian Embassy to their letter.
The circumstances surrounding Patel’s final days on the ship remain uncertain, triggering a family campaign to seek answers in Indian media and across social media.
The family said they were told by a representative of the vessel’s manager that he was suffering from an unspecified illness and was sent to his cabin for bedrest from August 1. His last contact with his two sisters and wife was by WhatsApp on August 8, when Mando One was at Vysotsk, where there was a phone signal.
The registered shipmanager of Mando One is Radiating World Shipping Services LLC — the same company that contracted Patel’s employment, according to documents provided by Patel’s family. However, correspondence with the family has been channelled through an India-based company also purporting to manage the vessel called Ocean One Ship Management.
According to the family, Capt Jagdeep Kahlon from Ocean One Ship Management, India, contacted them on August 11 to say that he was last seen on board the vessel on August 10, at 1700 hrs UTC, near his room.
Mando One was transiting through the Greater Belt region between Denmark and Sweden at the time, and Capt Kahlon said a search was underway.
Capt Kahlon told Lloyd’s List on August 29 that able seaman Patel was going to be signed off at the next port of call for his illness but did not go into further details about what this was for.
He said that the joint rescue operation involved 20 vessels and three helicopters and rejected the family’s claim that management delayed in seeking help when he was discovered missing.
Capt Kohlan declined to name the ship’s P&I insurer or discuss the details of the vessel’s ownership or management structure. The tanker was not covered by any of the 12 clubs that provide cover under the International Group.
The International Group insures 95% of the tanker fleet but could not cover Mando One as the cargo on board was not bought or sold at the price cap or imposed by the G7 on crude, fuel oil and refined product cargoes from Russian to third countries.
Capt Kahlon rejected the ship as being part of the so-called “dark fleet”.
“There’s nothing wrong with shipping cheap Russian oil to India,” he said, adding the tankers on Russia-India oil trades provided legitimate employment for thousands of Indian seafarers and the vessel was not sanctioned.
Human Rights at Sea chief executive David Hammond said there was deep sense of frustration among many in the maritime industry about the lack of transparency over seafarer deaths or disappearances at sea like able seaman Patel’s.
“There’s no transparency to the degree we need in the public domain,” he said.
All deaths of seafarers on board ships need to be “adequately investigated and reported” to a global register of the International Labour Office under May 2022 changes to codes under the Maritime Labour Convention.
A register of deaths is also held by the International Maritime Organization, which lists 183 reports over the past five years in which a death was part of the incident summary.
The Cook Islands international flag registry said in an emailed response on August 23 that “the administration is aware of and has arranged for an investigation into the incident”.
Radiating World Shipping Services was approached for comment has not responded.
Mando One is now at anchor and has yet to discharge at Izmit, Türkiye.
*Lloyd’s List defines a tanker as part of the dark fleet if it is aged 15 years or over, anonymously owned and/or has a corporate structure designed to obfuscate beneficial ownership discovery, solely deployed in sanctioned oil trades, and engaged in one or more of the deceptive shipping practices outlined by US State Department guidance issued in May 2020. The figures exclude tankers tracked to government-controlled shipping entities such as Russia’s Sovcomflot, or Iran’s National Iranian Tanker Co, and those already sanctioned. Download our explainer on the different risk profiles of the dark fleet here
Lloyd’s List Intelligence Seasearcher subscribers can add the Lloyd’s List dark fleet to their watchlists here