Aug 102009

Russian navy ships, the Federal Security Service and Interpol are looking for Arctic Sea, a 4,000 tonnes general cargo ship, managed by Oy Solchart, which vanished after apparently entering the English channel from the North Sea on 29 July. No contact has been made with her and there is speculation that the vessel carrying almost $2m worth of timber from Finland has been hijacked or taken by its Russian crew of 15.

The wood, from Europe’s largest papermaking company, Stora Enso, was bound for Bejaia, Algeria. Arctic Sea’s last known position was off the coast of Portugal. Spanish maritime authorities say that vessel did not pass through the Straits of Gibraltar,through which it would have had to pass to reach Algeria. Last radio contact was with Dover Coastguard on the morning of July 29. Web-based AIS sites logged the last AIS transmission on July 29-30.

It is not very difficult to make a ship disappear in plain site: Minor changes to superstructure and paintwork, a black-market set of ship’s identity documents and a simple re-configuration of electronic equipment such as the AIS are enough. It is even possible that Arctic Seas did not leave the North Sea. However, the real question may not be how she disappeared but why, there are suggestions that she was suspected to be carrying a far more valuable cargo.

Anyone trying to sell the recorded cargo will get a fraction of its insured/market value and $2m split between all those who would need to participate is hardly worth getting out of bed for, but someone was determined to seize something on the vessel and spend money to get it.

Swedish police are investigating the alleged boarding of the Malta-flagged vessel by ten armed men who claimed to be police, between Oeland and Gotland in the Baltic on 24 July, almost a week before her disappearance. The crew were tied up while the ship was searched and the attackers apparently left empty-handed on fast inflatables. Arctic Sea disappeared five days later.

Interfax, the Russian news agency says that the Russian Navy announced on Sunday that it was searching for the ship and quotes  Mikhail Voytenko, editor  of  the  Maritime  Bulletin  – Sovfracht: “It (Arctic Sea) was  supposed  to  arrive there (Bejaia, Algeria) on  August 4. But the vessel disappeared on July 28. Contact has not been established with it since then. Neither  its  owner  nor the relatives [of the crew] know anything about its whereabouts. No traces have been found.  All  services, including the navy, are searching for the vessel… someone believed there was something valuable on the ship that was being carried illegally…”

Suggestions that the crew mau have been involved would appear unlikely. According to Bloomberg: “Victor Matveev, chief executive officer of Solchart, said in a telephone interview from Helsinki today…“We’ve operated this vessel for many, many years on a consecutive voyage basis between Finland and the Mediterranean, and this is more than disturbing,” Matveev said. “All the crew members have been working for our company for several years, they’re professional, well educated, and there are no newcomers. It makes us wonder what happened.”

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