A new vessel, set to become a familiar sight in Southampton and along the south coast, has entered service after an inaugural event in the city's port.

Whitchallenger is the first of a two-vessel series for the Whitaker Group, that has a base in Southampton, which will be employed in the bunkering and coastal fuel trades.

Chartered by Exxon, the 2,958 gross tonnage vessel was built at the Tuzla Gemi Shipyard in Istanbul, Turkey, which is also constructing the second ship, Whitchampion, expected to be in service by May of next year.

Whitchallenger was unveiled to the representatives of the shipping and port industries at a ceremony at 38/9 berth in the Eastern Docks.

Both Whitchallenger, the group's first vessel for six years, and Whitchampion are double-hulled ships, built to the latest safety standards.

A spokesman for Whitaker's said: "The company has taken the precaution of modifying the second vessel to fully coated tanks and deepwell pumps to make her more clean oil friendly in the event of a market swing.''

With a speed of 11 knots, Whitchallenger has a total of 14 cargo tanks and can accommodate a crew of ten.

Jaime Spellings, Exxon's director for global marine fuels, said: "Whitaker share our commitment to safety and the environment which is embodied in this state-of-the-art ship.''

Whitaker Group, which can

trace its beginnings back to 1880 when the company started with just two wooden barges, has a present-day fleet of coastal tankers delivering in excess of 1.5 million tonnes annually for the major oil companies.

Besides its Southampton-based operation the group has offices in Hull, Runcorn and Pembroke.