Houthi Forces Attempt to Board Tanker off Yemen

French frigate Languedoc
French frigate Languedoc joined the U.S. destroyers in protection efforts in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden

Published Dec 13, 2023 1:09 PM by The Maritime Executive


Incidents in the Red Sea are increasing after the Houthi rebels issued a statement saying that they would expand their efforts to include any vessel they believed was bound for Israel or involved in trade with Israel. U.S., UK, and French naval forces are all reporting encounters with at least one tanker attacked today, December 13, and in a further escalation the attackers took to a small boat while individuals identifying as “Yemeni authorities” continued to demand that vessels divert.

U.S. Central Command confirmed an attempted Houthi attack on the Marshall Island-registered chemical tanker Ardmore Encounter (49,500 dwt) while sailing near the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. The shipping company confirmed to the Associated Press that the vessel had been approached and fired upon but said the crew was safe and the vessel was proceeding with an escort from a U.S. warship.

The incident began at 0830 when the tanker, which is transporting a cargo of jet fuel from India to Europe, first reported being approached by a small boat. United Kingdom Trade Operations (UKMTO) reports there were three armed persons onboard and that the incident was approximately 50 nautical miles west of Hodeidah, Yemen. When the small boat was within half a nautical mile of the tanker armed security guards aboard the vessel fired warning shots and the attackers reportedly shot at the tanker.

After the small boat moved away from the tanker, the vessel received a radio call from the “Yemeni authorities” ordering it to sail toward Yemen. Associated Press is citing unnamed U.S. officials who said coalition forces advised the vessel to continue on course while two missiles were also fired at the tanker. Some reports said one missile was shot down while the other fell into the sea. The captain of the Ardmore Encounter reported that they saw an explosion 200 meters astern.

The destroyer USS Mason was dispatched to assist the tanker and as it was proceeding to the area reportedly tracked a drone traveling in the same direction. The U.S. vessel shot down the drone and escorted the tanker out of the danger zone.

"The UAV was heading directly towards the Mason and was shot down in self-defense. There were no injuries to personnel and no damage to any vessels," U.S. Central Command said in a statement late Wednesday. 

UKMTO, which coordinates with the Royal Navy and issues warnings to commercial shipping, released a second alert after it received reports of small boats operating in the Arabian Sea off the Omani city of Al Duqm. They warned that five to six small boats with powerful outboard motors that could likely attain 25 knots were following the unidentified merchant ship for at least 90 minutes. The boats were reported to have a machine gun mounted near the bow but the boats cleared the area without approaching the vessel that reported the incident to UKMTO.

France’s Marine Nationale also reported yesterday that its frigate FREMM Languedoc, which has been in the area around the Red Sea since December 8, has again also taken down a drone. The vessel on December 9 shot down two drones and then on December 11 assisted the Norwegian tanker Strinda, which was attacked. The Languedoc shot down another drone which they believed was attempting to attack the tanker after the vessel had already been hit by the missile. The Languedoc also positioned itself to protect the tanker preventing according to the statement an attempt to hijack the vessel.

The increase in activity in the Red Sea area comes as the White House reports President Joe Biden is actively working with U.S. allies to create a multi-national naval task force. Unconfirmed reports indicated that the U.S. is proposing that the warships would escort merchant vessels through the Bab al-Mandeb Strait and the danger zone near Yemen.