Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Phantom ships

It's the dog days of summer in my part of the stick ('dog days' being an ancient reference to Sirius - the dog star), and I've been trying to take some time off from my usual reporting. But the strange case of the Arctic Sea has kept intriguing me. EagleSpeak has provided great information on this bizarre incident (see here), which continues to unfold. Was the vessel seized by pirates? Perhaps.

But another possibility - as Eagle1 has alluded to - is that the ship might have fallen prey to rogue elements in the shipping community who might be seeking to profit through less than legal means. It's not inconceivable and there are many cases of ships 'disappearing' off the radar - literally and figuratively speaking. They're known as phantom ships or ghost ships, vessels that have their flag of registry, name and other details altered while at sea. And though there are some who wonder how a vessel sailing in European waters could do so, I was reminded of an incident a decade ago that has certain similarities to the ongoing mystery of the Arctic Sea. It concerned the very dramatic final voyage of a Panamanian-flagged general cargo vessel called the Kobe Queen I. I wrote about it in my first book, Ocean Titans: Journeys in Search of the Soul of a Ship, and here's an excerpt of what transpired:

The Kobe Queen I was a rust bucket of a ship built in 1976 and displacing 18500dwt, less than half the size the Emerald Star. In the summer of 1999 she was being operated by a shadowy shipping firm based in Odessa with a crew of twenty-five Ukrainian sailors under the command of Captain Yuri Levkovsky. That July, the Kobe Queen loaded a cargo of 15000 tons of steel in Istanbul (worth over $5 million), bound for the Caribbean with a stop in Senegal along the way. But sometime after leaving Turkish waters, new orders came from Odessa and the vessel began an erratic and elusive journey through the Mediterranean and around West Africa. A few weeks later, she made port in Dakar, Senegal and 2000 tons of the steel were quickly sold before the ship headed out to sea once more. By now, several interested parties – such as the owners of the cargo – were getting concerned about the whereabouts of the ship and attempted to contact Levkovsky and the owners, neither of whom bothered to respond. It appeared that the Kobe Queen had disappeared off the face of the map, hijacked by her own crew.

The maritime equivalent of an “all points bulletin” soon went out worldwide to port authorities, shipping agents, law enforcement agencies and others to find the Kobe Queen. Among those notified was Lloyd’s Register (not to be confused with Lloyd’s of London, which is an insurance company). Lloyd’s has a network of agents in ports around the world and these “ship spotters” were told that the Kobe Queen was now a wanted vessel with a $100,000 reward posted for information leading to her arrest and the recovery of the cargo. Throughout September and October, these spotters caught glimpses of the phantom ship, first in Cape Verde, then off Nigeria. It was noticed that she had a new name painted on her transom – the Gloria Kopp – and was making for the Cape of Good Hope.

For two months, the Kobe Queen/Gloria Kopp wandered the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans while her mysterious owners tried to figure out what to do with the remaining cargo. Rumours of Russian Mafia or drug smugglers being involved in the case began to swirl in some quarters, but all that was known was that the shipowners had also disappeared, leaving only an empty office in Odessa. Finally, on Christmas Eve of 1999, a Lloyd’s agent in the southeastern Indian city of Chennai reported that the ship was anchored six miles offshore and the Indian Coast Guard dispatched the patrol boat Vikram to intercept her. As the Vikram came into sight, Captain Levkovsky ordered his crew to weigh anchor and get underway as quickly as possible, intending to make for the safety of international waters in the Bay of Bengal.

While a storm erupted overhead, the Coast Guard boat battled through heavy winds and high seas to get within hailing range of the Kobe Queen and order her to stop engines. When her captain refused, the Vikram brought her 30mm cannon to bear and fired rounds across the bow of the cargo ship while preparing an armed boarding party to deploy. The Kobe Queen continued steaming at full speed until more cannon fire finally convinced Levkovsky to heave to and the Coast Guardsmen clambered about his ship, whereupon the Ukrainian crew put up a short fight before surrendering. As they prisoners were lined up on the rain-swept deck, noticeably missing was Captain Levkovsky, who had retreated to his cabin. When the Indian sailors finally broke down his door, they found the Master dead: he had hung himself with a nylon rope. The Kobe Queen’s owners were never heard from again.

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