Recently we've become used to the idea of modern-day piracy, as we hear more and more stories of gangs hijacking ships for ransom in the lawless waters of East Africa. But the mysterious disappearance of a 4,000-ton cargo ship off the coast of England two weeks ago suggests the most unlikely of scenarios: buccaneering has returned to Europe.
On July 24, the Maltese-flagged Arctic Sea reported that it had been boarded by gunmen posing as law-enforcement officers off the coast of Sweden and that its 15 Russian crew members had been tied up and beaten. Four days later, the ship which was carrying a load of timber from Finland worth $1.84 million sailed into the English Channel, where it made routine communications with British maritime authorities, who at the time were unaware of the hijacking. About 50 miles (80 km) off the coast of Britain, the ship then slipped off the radar and has yet to be located. Officials are baffled.
"Who would think that a hijacked ship could pass through one of the most policed and concentrated waters in the world?" a bemused Mark Clark of the U.K.'s Maritime and Coastguard Agency told the BBC. "There didn't seem [to be] anything suspicious. It could well be that a crew member had a gun put to his head by a hijacker when contact was made."
According to Swedish police and the Maltese Maritime Authority (MMA), the Arctic Sea's crew reported that a group of eight to 12 men boarded at 3 a.m. on July 24, occupying the vessel for 12 hours. "During their stay onboard, the members of the crew were allegedly assaulted, tied, gagged and blindfolded, and some of them were seriously injured," says an MMA statement. According to CNN, since the crew at first believed they had been boarded by a genuine law-enforcement agency, no police complaint was made, and the Arctic Sea continued on its way. At one point, a spokeswoman for the Swedish police told CNN, the ship was witnessed performing "extreme maneuvers."
On July 28, ship managers based in Finland finally reported the hijacking to the Helsinki police, according to the MMA. Later that same day, the ship passed through the English Channel, communicating its position and speed to the British coast guard as dictated by standard procedure, with no mention of any trouble. The ship's Automatic Identification System, which relays the ship's position to authorities, was either switched off or broken. According to CNN, three days later, Swedish police phoned the ship and spoke to someone they believed to be the captain. When the ship failed to make its scheduled arrival in Algeria on Aug. 4, the alarm was raised.
On Thursday, Britain's Daily Telegraph newspaper, citing unnamed European Commission maritime officials, reported that following its attack in Swedish waters, the Arctic Sea sent a second set of radio messages saying it had again been hijacked after it passed through the English Channel, off the coast of Portugal. "Radio calls were apparently received from the ship which had supposedly been under attack twice, the first time off the Swedish coast and then off the Portuguese coast," a commission transport official told the Telegraph.
Five Russian naval vessels reported to include nuclear submarines have been dispatched to search for the Arctic Sea. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev instructed the country's Defense Minister, Anatoly Serduykov, to "take all necessary measures to locate, monitor and, if necessary, to free the missing vessel," a Defense Ministry statement said. Finnish police have said they are also helping with the search.
While piracy has become a common scourge off the coast of Somalia, an attack in a region blanketed with "sophisticated surveillance and extensive navies and coast guards is almost unheard of," says Douglas Burnett, a maritime partner at the U.S. international law firm of Squire, Sanders & Dempsey. It is all the more suspicious given the relatively low value of the listed cargo on board. "The cargo on the ship is timber," he says. "No one would steal a ship for timber, especially in European waters. So perhaps the lumber could be a cargo cover. Was it drugs? Was it nuclear weapons? Who knows what could be on that ship?"
The shipping industry, like so many others, has been battered by the global recession. According to Lloyd's Marine Intelligence Unit, nearly 10% of the world's merchant ships are stuck at harbor because of a collapse in global trade. Burnett notes that there has been an increase in insurance fraud as a result of financial pressures. "We have had cases in the past where ships have been intentionally scuttled as part of a fraudulent insurance scheme," he says. "The law says that when a ship doesn't arrive in port, it's assumed to be from a peril of the sea, and the underwriters have to pay unless they can prove the sinking was not accidental, which is pretty hard without any witnesses."
Nick Davis, head of the English private security firm Anti-Piracy Maritime Security Solutions, told the BBC that a sinking was unlikely as the cargo would have been spotted floating in the open waters. "I strongly suspect that this is probably a commercial dispute with [the ship's] owner and a third party, and they've decided to take matters into their own hands," he said.
For now, suspicions and theories are all there is, until the rescue vessels find the missing ship if they ever do. Maritime expert Burnett says international law would normally require that the Russian navy receive permission from Maltese authorities to board the Arctic Sea, but a specific piracy exemption in the U.N.'s Law of the Sea Convention allows any country to board a ship it suspects has fallen under the control of pirates.
"In this case, I think any nation can ask the Arctic Sea to heave-to and be boarded," Burnett says. "We are all waiting to find out what happens. Right now, it is very mysterious."