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Mystery freighter

August 14, 2009

A German paper reported a sighting of the freighter which appeared to have sailed into a void. But without official confirmation, the story remains every bit as murky as the waters in which the vessel vanished.

The Arctic Sea at sea
The Arctic Sea has been missing for more than two weeksImage: AP

The whereabouts of a Maltese-flagged freighter remain unclear but the media, hungry for the story to move, pounced upon the revelation on Friday by the German daily newspaper Financial Times Deutschland that the vessel had been spotted near the Cape Verde islands. Almost immediately, the shipping company which owns the freighter said the fate of the missing ship remained a "mystery."

The story reads like something from the first draft of a mystery novel: On July 23, the Arctic Sea set sail from Finland. While cruising the Baltic off Sweden in the early hours of the next morning, the ship was allegedly boarded by a band of up to a dozen men posing as drugs police.

The men, who it transpired were not narcotics agents, tied up the 15-strong Russian crew and made away with trivial items. Peculiarly, the incident was not reported to the Swedish police until several days later, during which time the Arctic Sea continued on its voyage.

Four days later, the ship sailed down the Dover Strait where it roused no suspicions whatsoever when going through the routine process of identifying itself and its cargo to the British coastguard.

The captain should have made contact with the coastguard again on leaving the Channel, but never did. And no-one, it seems, tried to make contact with him.

Conflicting reports

Facts about exactly where the freighter was when it fell off the radar are fuzzy to say the least. Some reports say it was last located in the Bay of Biscay, but others say it vanished in waters between the French town of Brest and the English resort of Penzance.

Whichever is closer to the truth is scarcely relevant at this stage. The fact is, that the ship failed to dock in Algeria on Aug. 4 and that nobody seems to have anything to offer by way of explanation but speculation.

Dr. Martin Murphy, senior fellow and maritime expert at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment in Washington, says there are too many anomalies to glean a clear idea of the fate of the missing ship, but he is reluctant to go along with the idea that the vanishing act is the work of sea bandits.

"I would be absolutely knocked off my chair if this were piracy," Murphy said. "It could be a form of insurance scam, or perhaps it is diversion fraud and the cargo will be off-loaded at a different port."

He said the fact that the ship is carrying timber may lend itself to such an idea, as the wood would be nigh on impossible to trace once it had been safely delivered into the wrong hands. But it would also imply that the crew was either complicit in the crime or that hi-jackers were at the helm.

Closely-patrolled waters

Heinrich Blume, a former captain and maritime expert with extensive first hand experience of the Baltic and North Seas, says it is possible that not all of the men who boarded the freighter posing as drugs officers got back off again.

Although he admits he is baffled at how anyone managed to board the Arctic Sea in the waters off Sweden in the first place.

"The area is under the surveillance of the Swedish military," he said. "They are extremely pedantic, they follow the movements of every ship and I think it very strange that they should miss something like this."

To dock or to go on?

Blume insists it is peculiar that the captain of the Arctic Sea should have opted to continue with the voyage after his crew had been roughed about by their assailants, and head on down to the English Channel as if nothing were wrong.

But Murphy says shipping companies sometimes encourage sailors to do just that. "They don't want their vessels held up so they offer the crew a bit of extra cash to continue as normal."

And normal is certainly how the British coastguard described its contact with the ship on July 28. So just what has happened to it since? With its automatic identification system disabled since July 30, it could be anywhere.

Smuggling theories

One slice of excited speculation focuses on the idea that it sailed off-course to deliver a secret cargo of arms or drugs, and several reports suggest that thesis is made all the more likely by the fact that the Arctic Sea had been in Kaliningrad for repairs prior to picking up its load in Finland.

Heinrich Blume says the disappearance in such densely populated waters bears the hallmarks of seriously organized crime. "This is not about the transport of schnapps or cigarettes," he said. "It wouldn't be worth going to such lengths for that. It could be something like plutonium."

And the fact that Russia has now mounted a large-scale hunt and is using "all means of detection" to find the missing freighter, has fuelled speculation that there could be something besides an innocuous shipment of wood on board.

But exactly what that might be is unlikely to surface until the ship turns up, and even then there is every possibility that the truth will remain lost at sea.

Author: Tamsin Walker
Editor: Rob Mudge