By Marianna Parraga
HOUSTON, Oct 9 (Reuters) - Venezuela's state oil company PDVSA has leased two secondhand oil tankers owned by a Greek broker, maritime sources said on Wednesday, and it plans to rent another two Suezmaxes for its aging fleet which urgently needs vessels for long distance routes to Asia.
PDVSA and Venezuela's official news agency said the first tanker, the Rio Arauca, which arrived in Venezuelan waters on Friday, came directly from the dockyard. But the vessel's registration documents show it is owned by Horizon Tankers, a company based in Greece.
The vessel, which used to be named Melodia, was finished in 2011 by the South Korean shipyard Samsung Heavy Industries. In July it changed its classification company, the broker and its flag after being registered in the Marshall Islands.
A broker close to the deal said that the tanker, as well as another Suezmax, from the same Greek company, called Rio Caroni - its old name was Amarylis - are being operated by the Cyprus branch of the German firm Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement (BSM) to serve PDVSA's fleet under leasing contracts.
"Venezuela is not the owner and it does not appear anywhere in the vessels' documents. These deals were made to have faster access to tankers that are already built," the broker said.
PDVSA ordered 42 new tankers in 2006 to expand its fleet and cut high transportation costs on routes to Asian countries such as China, India and Japan. But since then only five tankers have been delivered because of numerous delays, so PDVSA now needs vessels quickly to reduce its expensive freight bills.
Venezuela's Petroleum Minister Rafael Ramirez said on Friday that the Rio Arauca tanker, which has a capacity of 1 million barrels, "will strengthen PDVSA's fleet in every route, in order to satisfy the company's transportation needs."
He did not specify the vessel's origin, but said three other Suezmaxes are already serving PDVSA's fleet.
Nevertheless, Reuters' ship tracking information shows that only two of the Suezmaxes are active and navigating using their new names, after being re-registered in the Marshall Islands.
The broker added that both vessels appear to be in good condition and passed all their inspections, the last one being carried out in Tokyo this year.
"If PDVSA urgently needs the tankers, this is an option. But leasing the vessels through a foreign company implies that Venezuelans will not be preferred to be hired as crew," another broker said.
PDVSA is one of Bernhard Shulte's biggest clients. It is currently operating eight Lakemaxes, three multipurpose vessels for importing grain, the new Chinese VLCC (very large crude carrier) Ayacucho, and the Suezmaxes.