Vale’s phase-out of VLOCs could spell a safer future for dry bulk sector

Stellar Banner debunkering operation. Credit: Brazilian Navy

As part of a new “risk management approach”, Brazilian iron ore producer Vale, has decided to phase out its fleet of 25 converted very large ore carriers (VLOC).

The move, announced on 28 April, follows years of grave safety issues, associated with converted very large crude carriers (VLCC) to VLOCs, including structural integrity and loading risks, and could spell a safer future for the bulk carrier industry and crew onboard.

In its announcement, Vale acknowledged the safety concerns over its bulk carriers, citing a February 2020 incident in which its vessel Stella Banner grounded shortly after leaving the Ponta da Medeira Terminal, off the coast of Brazil.  An investigation found that structural damage occurred on the Stella Banner, causing the vessel to list uncontrollably.

Vale also operated the converted VLOC Stellar Daisy, which sank in 2017, tragically claiming the lives of all 22 of its 24 crew members. An investigation into the rapid listing of Stellar Daisy was found to be due to a catastrophic failure of the hull, that resulted in a loss of buoyancy and uncontrolled flooding. The chairman of Polaris and the head of the Busan office were subsequently jailed for negligence.

Age is also a factor in the safety of converted VLOCs; Stellar Daisy was built in 1992 and was already 16 years old when converted to a VLOC in 2008.

“What we have learned in hindsight is that on paper such large-scale conversions made a lot of sense, financially and technically, but it turned out they also carried a lot of risk,” said John Radziwill, CEO C Transport Marine. “What the industry can take away from this is that on projects like these one should calculate all risks very carefully against potential rewards,” added Radziwell.

Vale’s removal of these vessels from the market could cause other ore producers to follow suit, reducing the number of VLOCs on the world fleet and in turn improve maritime safety.

However, the dry bulk sector still faces a high rate of safety incidents.  According to IHS Markit data in the State of Maritime Safety report, between 2015 to 2019 bulk carriers have been involved in 1,287 casualty incidents, resulting in 35 total losses. Over the past decade, 188 crew members have lost their lives onboard such vessels, according to a report issued by The International Association of Dry Cargo Shipowners association.