This past year was one in which the only thing you could expect was the unexpected.

It has been difficult to compile a list of stories that shook the industry when shipping has been shaking all year long.

But TradeWinds' staff have put together an end-of-year list that jumped out at us at the time or are shocking to look back on, given what we know now. Because, as they say, hindsight is 20/20.

1. The coronavirus? Don't worry about it!

January was a simpler, more naive time in our lives — as shown in TradeWinds' early coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The first time TradeWinds mentioned the virus was in the following article on 21 January, breathtakingly entitled "Coronavirus 'not likely a material headwind' for cruise".

However, by early February, TradeWinds reported that "the cruise industry’s worst nightmare has been realised" after a rush of Covid-19 cases on two cruiseships in Asia.

Fast forward to the end of the year and the pandemic has left the cruise industry in tatters.

Cruise giant Carnival racked up $8bn in losses during the first nine months of 2020 alone, pushing it to offload almost 20 ships.

But there have been green shoots too, with new market entrants seizing cheap cruiseships and unexpected opportunities.

2. Stranded seafarers in crisis

Travel restrictions during the pandemic have pushed the world's merchant seafarers to their limits, resulting in shipping's most shocking ongoing challenge: the crew-change crisis.

Around 400,000 seafarers have been affected and forced to work beyond their contracted period of employment, according to latest estimates.

In November, an anonymous mariner known as "The Secret Captain detailed the realities" of life on board his tanker, where crew were facing physical and mental exhaustion.

A month later, an International Labour Organization committee of experts ruled that national signatories to the Maritime Labour Convention have failed in their legal responsibility to provide a duty of care to seafarers during the pandemic.

The landmark judgment ordered governments to provide medical services to crew and to repatriate stranded seafarers, meaning that a definitive end to the situation is in sight —hopefully.

The Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs oversees the repatriation of Filipino seafarers in September. Photo: Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs

3. Oil costs less than nothing

Who could have predicted on New Year's Eve that oil prices would fall into negative territory during 2020 for the first time in history?

The unexpected failure of Opec+ to reach consensus over crude supply in early March led to a price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia, whose chartering spree helped boost VLCC earnings to nearly $250,000 per day.

Brokers at the time described the market as "nuts" and "perplexing", following a 35-point surge in charter rates for spot-trading VLCCs within 10 hours.

Oil prices turned negative on 20 April, which boosted demand for both crude and product tankers, particularly for use as floating storage while onshore tanks were filled to the brim.

4. Billion-dollar buy-in

It was these events that led to a massive upswing in investor interest in the tanker sector in late April.

Just shy of $1bn-worth of tanker shares were traded in New York on 27 April in what was unofficially a record day for the sector.

This volume was more than five times what has been traded in an average day over the previous six months.

5. Gone in 60 seconds

Amid blowing whistles, exploding hatch covers and billowing clouds of iron ore dust, Polaris Shipping's 300,000-dwt VLOC Stellar Banner (built 2016) was scuttled in the Atlantic Ocean in June.

The scuttling gave rise to what might be the shipping's most dramatic video of 2020 (see below) as the huge vessel disappeared beneath the waves within a minute.

The ore carrier was declared a constructive total loss after it grounded 100 km off Sao Luis in Brazil in late February.

The grounding reignited safety concerns over the structural fragility of modern VLOCs.

Brazilian miner Vale responded by removing 25 converted VLOCs from its operations, which it called a “new risk management approach”, and by mid-December had unloaded its final vessel.

6. Grounded in paradise

One of 2020's most notorious ship casualties was reportedly caused by seafarers looking for internet connectivity during a birthday party.

The 20 crew onboard the 203,000-dwt Wakashio (built 2007) diverted the bulker to secure a connection as part of the birthday celebrations of one of the seafarers on board.

The capesize ran aground off Mauritius in late July and later broke in two, releasing 1,000 tonnes of bunker fuel that polluted around 32 km of the island’s coastline.

The vessel's charterer — Mitsui OSK Lines — blamed the incident on "overconfidence" and "complacency" in December, as it launched a $5m safety campaign.

7. Attacks, but no casualties

Attacks on tankers in the Middle East continued this year, but remarkably with no serious casualties so far.

In mid-December, one of Hafnia's LR1 product tankers suffered an explosion and fire caused by an “external source” while discharging at the Red Sea port of Jeddah in Saudi Arabia.

This followed an explosion in November believed to have been caused by a mine onboard an aframax tanker in Saudi Arabia.

8. Tragedy in Beirut

One of the most powerful artificial non-nuclear explosions in history shook the port of Beirut in early August and is believed to be linked to illegal shipping activities.

Lebanon's capital was shaken by a huge explosion on 4 August after ammonium nitrate seized from a ship six years ago exploded, killing 204 and injuring thousands.

The explosion generated seismic waves equivalent to a 3.5-magnitude earthquake.

In October, the Lebanese government asked Interpol to issue warrants for the captain and owner of the 3,226-dwt cargoship Rhosus (built 1986), which brought the explosive cargo to the port six years ago.

Nearly 2,700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded on 4 August, killing 204 people, wounding about 6,500 and leaving nearly 300,000 people homeless. Photo: Twitter

9. World's largest newbuilding project

Big-ticket deals have been sparse during 2020, but Qatar bucked the trend in April by initiating the world’s largest newbuilding project.

To date, Qatar has booked up to 120 LNG berths at shipyards in China and South Korea.

The country signed a milestone LNG newbuilding berth reservation deal in April with China’s Hudong-Zhonghua Shipbuilding (Group) for a potential 16 vessels worth more than $2.8bn.

This was followed in June by a $18.75bn deal between gas producer Qatar Petroleum and South Korea's big three shipbuilders to secure berths for more than 100 LNG carrier newbuildings.

10. An expensive meal in Greenland

And finally, a tasty dinner with his crew turned out to be a recipe for disaster for a Danish naval commander — and one of TradeWinds' best-read stories of the year in January.

The captain of patrol vessel Lauge Koch was fined a meaty DKK 6,000 ($890) after the ship’s cook shot a musk ox in a Greenland national park, then served it to the sailors.