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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Mystery of Missing Ship Deepens (Updated & Bumped)

It all started with a very odd report of a very odd "pirate boarding" of a timber carrying ship, Arctic Sea, off Sweden by men reportedly using rubber boats marked as police boats. Odd, too, was that the piracy report came several days after the alleged attack and after the Arctic Sea had continued on its way.

Then came reports that Russian security forces were scrambling for a hunt for the ship - which was now reported as having disappeared. The reports of a disappearance were odd - no reports of distress calls, no emergency beacons in the water and, as marine expert Fred Fry pointed out in a comment - no signs of large amounts of floating wood (it is a timber ship, remember) that might mark a sudden sinking.

Now, another report here that Arctic Sea may have last been seen off Brest, France and that its position transponder has gone silent or been turned off:
The Arctic Sea was last recorded off Brest in Northern France at 0129h on July 30 and its transponder, which gives its position, appears to have been turned off after that. There is now an international search underway for the Maltese-flagged ship, which is carrying a €1.85 million cargo of timber, and which first hit the headlines after its crew reported that it had been boarded by hijackers on July 24 in Swedish waters – for just 12 hours. To add to the mystery, the case was not reported until days later, prompting doubts about whether the hijack actually took place.

The Dover Coastguard made contact on July 29 as the Arctic Sea was making her way into the Channel from the North Sea, shortly before its signal was lost but the ship was then reportedly seen off the coast of Portugal.

At the time of the last AIS Live record, it was still ostensibly bound for Algeria where it was due to unload its cargo on last week. However, it has not been spotted going through the Straits of Gibraltar.

A spokesman for AIS Live said that the transponders can be turned off – although this is rarely done. She explained that ships going past Somalia often turn off their positioning systems so as not to alert pirates to their presence.

The Malta National Maritime Security Committee is currently collaborating with a number of foreign jurisdictions in the ongoing investigations.
Additional information here:
Mark Clark, of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, said that Dover coastguard had spoken to the Arctic Sea at 5.30am on July 29 as it prepared to enter the Channel from the North Sea.

“We thought we had spoken to a member of the crew but of course it could have been someone with a gun pointed to their head or a hijacker,” he said. “There was no way of telling at the time.”
Arctic Sea was last recorded on the AISLive ship tracking system as off the coast of Brest, northern France, at 1.29am on July 30. The British coastguard was told that the ship had later been spotted by a Portuguese coastal patrol aircraft.

“That is the last information we have on the ship,” said Mr Clark. “Where she is now no-one knows. It is a highly unusual situation, no one can recall a hijacked ship being taken through the Channel.”
Mikhail Voitenko, editor in chief of the Maritime Bulletin, told the Itar-Tass agency that: “It is absolutely impossible to capture the ship with some criminal purposes in the European waters.

“If the ship is not hidden somewhere in Europe currently it may be anywhere within the range of 3,000-3,500 miles. So, all communication means are switched off or destroyed aboard the ship and it is going in an unknown direction.”
In one of my earlier posts I noted that the wind conditions off Portugal were not unusual. No reports of unusual waves in the area have been found.


In addition to hijacking or sinking, among possible concerns would be the diversion of this ship for use by some terrorist group.

UPDATE: A Russian "expert" weighs in here:
A Russian maritime expert said on Monday that "something extraordinary" must have happened to a cargo ship that went missing off Portugal's Atlantic coast.

The Russian maritime journal Sovfracht reported on Sunday that the Arctic Sea dry cargo vessel, expected to arrive at the Algerian port of Bejaia on August 4, was missing.

It said "the vessel literally disappeared on July 28: there has been no communication, and neither the ship-owners nor the relatives [of the crewmembers]...have any information about its whereabouts."

Sergei Gulev, head of the Russian Academy of Sciences Oceanic Studies Laboratory, said he did not believe that the ship could have been momentarily "sucked into the sea" or could have fallen apart: "It's not an airplane."

"If it did not send a distress call, therefore, something extraordinary must have happened to it, which had nothing to do with any meteorological phenomena."

He did not offer any other explanation.
UPDATE2: EU Maritime Security Center note:
Arctic Sea is believed to be operated by Oy Solchart Management of Finland. But that company is thought to be partly Russian owned, with a Russian director who lives in Finland. Fairplay called Solchart today, but there was no answer.

Russian sources suggested that the vessel is in port, in the Atlantic or sunk. The crew's relatives have complained that they have been unable to learn anything from the vessel’s owner.
Hmm. "In port, at sea or sunk" seems to pretty much cover it. You know, except for that "abducted by aliens" thing.

Wonder why my "insurance fraud" antenna is acting up?

UPDATE: 12 Aug 09- Still missing, though probably bound for the African west coast somewhere. Much excitement in Euro press over an act of piracy "off Europe" - see here for example:

But Nick Davis, who runs the private security firm Anti-Piracy Maritime Security Solutions, told the BBC’s Today programme that the relatively low value of the cargo suggested this was a different kind of piracy to that seen off the coast of East Africa.

He said: "Piracy is piracy – if someone’s wanting to take that vessel, and they’re not authorised, and they use a speedboat to go and get it, then it’s no different to what the Somalis do.

"However, I don’t believe they would have boarded that vessel firing weapons in the air, and threatening to kill the crew.

"Whilst it is piracy, it’s not like what we know in Somalia."

If its not the listed cargo that's the target, then it's the ship or an unlisted cargo. The whole "hijack- release-re-hijack" is interesting.

More here :
"Theories include the ship being given a false identity to steal other vessels' cargos, or that Russian gangsters are using it to smuggled illegal arms. But an expert has suggested it may have been seized as part of a commercial dispute."
Nick Davis, the chief executive of the Merchant Maritime Warfare Centre, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "It's not carrying a valuable cargo ... [a] small [amount of] timber between the Baltic states and Algiers is not a high-value cargo, so I strongly suspect that this is probably a commercial dispute between its owner and a third party, and they have decided to take matters into their own hands."

"I would strongly feel that the vessel is now down off the west coast of Africa, somewhere even further down towards the Nigeria way and the vessel will probably be renamed, repainted and the crew sort of dropped off at a port somewhere, probably safe and well, to then sort of hand themselves in and say 'We were the crew of this vessel and we want to go home'," said Davis.
There are many other, though less interesting, ways to seize a ship in a commercial dispute, which is not to say that Mr. Davis in incorrect in his assessment.

BBC video here.

UPDATE: (13 Aug 09) Operator of ship suspects hijacking.

See Update here.

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