Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Egyptian X-Files Ship Case

Before more about life aboard one of the largest vessels afloat – the container ship MV Emma Maersk – I want to relate one of the odder nautical mysteries currently circulating out there, which I first heard about while aboard the Emma. It concerns the fate of the freighter Badr One which left Port Suez in early January and disappeared a few days afterward, while en route to Port Sudan on the Red Sea.

Friday afternoon, 1 February, I was on the bridge chatting with the Emma’s First Officer Remus Galiatatos when he asked if I’d heard about the “mystery ship”. Intrigued, I listened as Galiatatos told me of an odd note sent by a local search and rescue center about a missing ship that the ship had received. He printed off a copy of it for me to read, complete with bad English typos:

DATE 24/01/08 AT 1445 UTC
ETS 09/01/08 FM SUES

First Officer Remus Galiatatos on the bridge of Emma Maersk

According to the note, the Emma Maersk was about to transit past the last known position of the Badr One in a few hours’ time, Branes, a coastal port in Egypt also known as Berenice. If there were fourteen mariners aboard a missing vessel in the vicinity, you would expect a certain amount of radio chatter going on about the incident. Yet things were oddly quiet.

chart of Red Sea near Berenice (Branes) Egypt

What was confusing to Galiatatos was that he could find no record of the ship’s existence in any of the various official shipping binders in the wheelhouse. We pulled out the lists of call signs, IMO (International Maritime Organization) identification numbers and vessel names, checking for anything similar in name from Sierra Leone, but Badr One was not listed in any of them. As well, there was no confirmation as to who had sent the notice. The First Officer thought it might have been sent from El Quseir, Egypt, but he couldn’t be certain.

We sailed past Berenice and towards our anchorage at Port Suez without any further information about the Badr One and its fate. Some of the crew wondered if it might be a ghost ship – a vessel renamed and involved with suspicious activities, or one that the owner might be hoping would “disappear” for insurance purposes. Others thought the message was a fake, intended to make it seem there was an emergency when there was none. But no one could say for sure and there was no more news about the freighter and her crew.

Unknown freighter off the Somali coast

But a couple of recent items posted on Egyptian and Sudanese sites say the Badr One may have been found. “May have been found” is the key phrase here, for there is no actual confirmation that the vessel and its crew are safe.

Pirated? Possibly, and maybe the owners paid the ransom or are doing so as you read this. They are insinuating as much, though Egyptian authorities deny piracy occurs in this part of the Red Sea. So, perhaps there was something else going on with a vessel reportedly carrying cement, plastic and steel pipes. Regardless, a ship with 14 crew went missing in one of the world’s busiest waterways and no one seemed to care too much.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Behind the scenes on container ship, Part 1

Late January saw me joining the crew of the Danish-flagged container vessel Emma Maersk in the Malaysian port of Tanjung Pelepas, just across the strait from Singapore. The Emma was about to leave on a two week journey to Europe, via the Indian Ocean, Suez Canal and Mediterranean Sea, having been laden with thousands of containers from the Far East bound for Western consumers.

The Emma is one of the largest vessels afloat, 397 metres long (longer than the Titanic, Queen Mary 2 or the biggest aircraft carriers), and rising as tall as a twenty story building from the quayside. She is undeniably big, in every sense of the term. She can carry more containers than her competitors by a healthy margin; her size has required the dredging of new channels and the construction of larger gantry cranes; even climbing aboard the Emma requires scalling one of the longest gangway accomodation ladders in use today.

Surprisingly, the Emma is operated by a crew of that can number less than 20 mariners, owing to the current technology available. The same cannot be said of the ground crews at container terminals like Tanjung Pelepas, who must transfer thousands of boxes to the vessel quickly and with great efficiency. In Malaysia, the Emma Maersk will spend less than 24 hours to complete the process of loading the ship and make her scheduled departure time of 1640 hours local time.

(Top) Trucks waiting to have their containers loaded on the Emma Maersk
at Tanjung Pelepas and (bottom) a view of the terminal from the ship.

Shortly after 1640 (4:40pm), the Emma's lines are cast off and a couple of harbour tugs nose themselves against the forward port side to help inch the container ship away from the pier and swing her 180 degrees to face south toward the Straits of Singapore, from where she'll make her way to the Malacca Strait and, eventually, the open waters of the Indian Ocean.

Overseeing the Emma's departure is her master, Captain Jorgen Sonnichsen. With 42 years of professional experience as a mariner, Sonnichsen is at the pinnacle of his career. The Danish seafarer is a member of an elite group of master mariners who are given responsibility for the operation of the largest sea-going vessels ever built, and for the next fortnight I'll be given the opportunity to watch him and his crew in action.

Emma Maerk's master, Capt. Jorgen Sonnichsen

A peculiar twist on Somali piracy

While sailing aboard the container ship Emma Maersk a couple of weeks ago, on a journey from Malaysia to Spain, word came through that a tug owned by a subsidiary of the Copenhagen-based Moller-Maersk firm had been hijacked off the Somali coast. By sheer coincidence, the Emma was sailing into the Red Sea when the hijacking occurred, on Friday, February 1, though we only received the news a day later. Clearly the attack on the tug Svitzer Korsakov was carried out with a certain amount of skill, for there were no Maydays sent nor was there any other radio traffic from the six member crew.

The Svitzer Korsakov is a brand-new tug that was traveling from her Russian shipyard in St. Petersburg to the Pacific, where she was to be used servicing the oil and gas fields off Sakhalin Island. The trip should have been routine for the mixed crew of British and Russian mariners, though anyone sailing near Somalia knows of the threats posed by pirates, especially on a small vessel like a tugboat.

Svitzer Korsakov tug

As of today, the ship and her crew remain in the custody of their captors, with negotiations supposedly ongoing between the hijackers and the vessel’s owner. What is interesting here, though, is a recent communication received by a news outlet in the Puntland region of Somalia, Radio Garowe, from the hijackers. An unnamed man who claimed to speak for the group said that they were not pirates but, rather, environmental activists.

He said their group’s name “Is the Ocean Salvation Corps,” and they are a group of Somali nationalists who took it upon themselves to protect the country’s shores. “We are the gentlemen who work in the ocean…since the [Somali] civil war began the ocean has been our Mother," the man said, going on to assert that the Svitzer Korsakov, is "Part of the environmental destruction" being committed by various foreign ships off of Somali shores. "The ships we now control have the equipment which destroyed the Indian Ocean," the man said, adding: "More than 70,000 tons of fish species is on abroad."

From my own research it is undeniable that there are many dubious acts being committed by foreign nations in the waters off Somalia – such as illegal fishing and the dumping of toxic waste. However, the passage near Somalia of a tugboat bound for Russia’s east coast cannot be construed as part of any multinational raping of Somalia’s maritime assets. And tugboats have neither the ability to catch nor the space to store “more than 70,000 tons of fish”. This is but a pirate operation attempting to cloak itself in the guise of social responsibility.

And lest there be any sympathies voiced about this act, consider the response this spokesman offered when asked whether or not the group would ask for ransom: "It has been the tradition to take ransom payment, but we will bring these ships in front of the law." Whose law was not made clear, nor was there an unequivocal refusal to accept money from Svitzer.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Spending time with Emma

The process of delving into modern-day piracy has taken me many places over the course of the last couple of years, such as Canada, the United States, Britain, Singapore, Malaysia and Kenya. And I've just returned from what I trust is the last of my journeys, a voyage from the Far East to Europe aboard the Danish container vessel Emma Maersk. For gearheads out there, the Emma is one of the largest ships afloat and I hope to give you some insights into life aboard her shortly.

On the trip from Malaysia to Algeciras, Spain, there was the threat of pirates, though not against Emma: a tug operated by a subsidiary of Maersk was hijacked off Somalia. The crew are still being held hostage at writing. More on all this shortly, as well as my trip