International
The F.S.O. Safer could spill a million barrels of crude at any moment. A U.N. official warns of a “catastrophic situation.”Illustration by Christoph Niemann

Yemen - The Ship That Became a Bomb

Stranded in Yemen’s war zone, a decaying supertanker has more than a million barrels of oil aboard. If—or when—it explodes or sinks, thousands may die.

Soon, a vast, decrepit oil tanker in the Red Sea will likely sink, catch fire, or explode. The vessel, the F.S.O. Safer—pronounced “Saffer”—is named for a patch of desert near the city of Marib, in central Yemen, where the country’s first reserves of crude oil were discovered. In 1987, the Safer was redesigned as a floating storage-and-off-loading facility, or F.S.O., becoming the terminus of a pipeline that began at the Marib oil fields and proceeded westward, across mountains and five miles of seafloor. The ship has been moored there ever since, and recently it has degraded to the verge of collapse. More than a million barrels of oil are currently stored in its tanks. The Exxon Valdez spilled about a quarter of that volume when it ran aground in Alaska, in 1989.

The Safer’s problems are manifold and intertwined. It is forty-five years old—ancient for an oil tanker. Its age would not matter so much were it being maintained properly, but it is not. In 2014, members of one of Yemen’s powerful clans, the Houthis, launched a successful coup, presaging a brutal conflict that continues to this day. Before the war, the Yemeni state-run firm that owns the ship—the Safer Exploration & Production Operations Company, or sepoc—spent some twenty million dollars a year taking care of the vessel. Now the company can afford to make only the most rudimentary emergency repairs. More than fifty people worked on the Safer before the war; seven remain. This skeleton crew, which operates with scant provisions and no air-conditioning or ventilation below deck—interior temperatures on the ship frequently surpass a hundred and twenty degrees—is monitored by soldiers from the Houthi militia, which now occupies the territory where the Safer is situated. The Houthi leadership has obstructed efforts by foreign entities to inspect the ship or to siphon its oil. The risk of a disaster increases every day.

A vessel without power is known as a dead ship. The Safer died in 2017, when its steam boilers ran out of fuel. A boiler is a tanker’s heart, because it generates the power and the steam needed to run vital systems. Two diesel generators on deck now provide electricity for basic needs, such as laptop charging. But crucial processes driven by the boiler system have ceased—most notably, “inerting,” in which inert gases are pumped into the tanks where the crude is stored, to neutralize flammable hydrocarbons that rise off the oil. Before inerting became a commonplace safety measure, in the nineteen-seventies, tankers blew up surprisingly often, and with lethal consequences: in December, 1969, three of them exploded within seventeen days, killing four men. Since the boilers on the Safer stopped working, the ship has been a tinderbox, vulnerable to a static-electric spark, a discharged weapon, a tossed cigarette butt.

Many people familiar with the Safer liken it to the dockside warehouse in Beirut, packed with ammonium nitrate, that exploded last year. That blast killed two hundred and eighteen people and destroyed a swath of the city: nearly eighty thousand apartments were damaged. Beirut’s plight was predicted, too—six months before the explosion, officials inspecting the consignment of ammonium nitrate on the waterfront warned that it could “blow up all of Beirut.” Ahmed Kulaib, who was the head of sepoc until recently, described the Safer to me as a “bomb.”

Some observers also believe that the Houthis have laid mines in the waters around the Safer. Many coastal regions under Houthi control have been booby-trapped this way. If explosives indeed surround the ship, nobody knows their exact locations. According to sources in Ras Issa, the port closest to the ship, the Houthi officer responsible for laying mines in the area was killed.

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