Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Voyage of the Arctic Sea

If you were to go ask Craigster, he would tell you about the days when he was in military intelligence. One of the things he will note if you can get him to get that far is that in the end, the Chinese, the Soviets, and the Americans always knew what each other were doing. As secret as everyone always thought they were being, the Americans always knew what was going on in the deepest Russia, the Soviet authorities always knew what the Chinese were up to, and the Chinese knew when the American had a truck parked in the wrong spot at the base. Much of that was done with satellite, even in the 1960s and 1970s, and while many of those satellites aren't even up there floating around anymore, if they could pull that stuff off back then I am sure they can do the same thing, with even greater accuracy these days.
With all that being said, I find it absolutely astounding that there is currently a Russian cargo ship out floating around somewhere in the Atlantic, we think, but which no one really knows for sure where it is or what it is doing.
Well, let's sort of qualify that a little bit, okay? The ship, the Arctic Sea, was actually sailing under the flag of the tiny and ancient Mediterranean nation of Malta, known for it's various high points by many, many people I am sure. Oh, and it wasn't leaving from Russia OR going to Russia. I was leaving Finland and heading for Algeria with $1.5 million worth of the finest Finnish timber that Algerian money could buy. So I guess the question is why the Russians recently sent out a bunch of their naval vessels, reportedly including a nuclear submarine, to find this ship? Well, the crew is comprised of fifteen Russian nationals and it was reportedly hijacked somewhere off the coast of Sweden. No, that is not a typo. I said Sweden.
Yes, Sweden. Not exactly a traditional hotbed of piracy. Sweden, whose only coastline is on the Baltic Sea. For those of you who aren't geography majors, the Baltic Sea is that big chunk of water that juts into Europe and is bordered by countries like Sweden, Russia, Poland, Germany, Denmark, Finland, and the Baltic Republics of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. Not really an area where one would expect pirates to be especially active, considering the relative strength of all those aforementioned nations and the fact that the only safe way for most ships to leave the Baltic Sea is through either the Öresund (or Øresund if you are Danish), the Great Belt, or the Little Belt, all of which are narrow, treacherous, and spanned by bridges. In fact, the Little Belt is actually too narrow and shallow for ocean going ships to pass. The Great Belt is very intensely monitored by the Danish military, and the Öresund is one of the most heavily travelled waterways in the world, carrying most of the traffic in and out of the Baltic, as well as more ferries between Copenhagen, the Danish capital, and Malmo on the Swedish side.
So needless to say it's pretty tough to escape the Baltic Sea if someone is looking for you, so it is generally not a place where there is a lot of piracy. Yet the Arctic Sea was reportedly boarded by roughly ten masked and heavily armed men claiming to be anti-drug police of July 24 when it was somewhere just off the Swedish island of Gotland. We know they weren't the police because the Swedish police have noted that they were not operating in that area at that time, but whoever the masked men were they tied up the crew and the beat up the crew. So far so good, pretty normal as far as hijackings go I would say. This, however is where things get a little strange.
It was reported that about twelve hours later the masked pirates left the ship via a high-speed inflatable boat. There is no way to confirm that though, and authorities from a handful of different countries are saying that there is no way to know who exactly is in charge of the ship. Seeing as it did not show up in Algeria on or around August 4 like it was supposed to, I feel pretty confident saying that the pirates are. Or are they?
See, the strange thing is that while we don't know where the Arctic Sea is located at this very moment, for a long time after the supposed hijacking we knew exactly where it was. First of all, there was never any sort of ransom demand, and unless you live in a timber starved part of the world there really isn't a reason to steal a ship full of timber other than to ransom it, so that is strange. Secondly, after this supposed attack and then abandonment by the pirates, the Arctic Sea continued on its way as if nothing happened. It never stopped to talk to Interpol. It never made a Mayday or a distress call. It didn't go back to Finland. It just sailed on. It just cruised out of the Baltic under the noses of the Swedes and the Danes as if it were any other day, and they made no attempt to stop it. On July 28 it contacted British authorities with a routine check in as it entered the English Channel just like every other ship does, and it reported as normal in any way. Two days later, at about 1:30 am local time on July 30 it was reported off the northern French coast near Brest and all seemed normal.
Since that time the Arctic Sea has sort of become the Elvis of the high seas. It may have been spotted by a Portuguese airplane out over the Atlantic. No, no, say the Portuguese authorities, the ship is not and has not been in the waters around Portugal. It's somewhere in the Mediterranean. No, no say the Maltese authorities, the ship has not approached the Straits of Gibraltar, it must be headed out into the Atlantic. The problem with that is there isn't a whole lot out in the Atlantic past Portugal. The Azores are out there a little ways, but those are Portuguese and if you are going to go there you might as well have just saved oneself the trouble and landed in Lisbon, don't you think? I can't really imagine where else they would go; I would be surprised in the ship has enough fuel on board to reach the Americas if it was only meant to go to Algeria.
So I don't know. For all we know it could just be floating on the waves somewhere out in the Atlantic, laying low for awhile. I would put my money on it being headed for the Azores was we speak, but what do I know? Some people who are sort of experts on the whole shipping security scene have offered up the possibility that there was a commercial dispute and that one of the parties sort of took matters into their own hands. But no one knows, except for the people on that ship and maybe the people who sent to pirates out to get it. No one has brought this up but what if the Russian crew just sort of wanted to desert, so they stages a hijacking and now are going to ask for asylum in some warmer country. It is said that all fifteen were from Arkhangelsk, which is WAY up in the northern latitudes of Russia where it's cold and dark most of the time, except in the summer when it is chilly and light all the time. It works pretty well if you think of it. Fake like you are under attack. Get rid of the pirates after twelve hours and proceed business as usual. Then, when you make your move everyone is still thinking that the pirates are on board. Before anyone knows what's up you are begging for asylum on a Spanish or Portuguese island, sipping a tropical drink and ditching your parka.
The problem is that one of the groups who still thinks the ship is under the control of some sort of mysterious Swedish pirates is the Russian government, and those guys don't fuck around. They have set all of their ships in the Atlantic to looking for the Arctic Sea, and when they find it I assure you that it won't be pretty. I guess that the biggest question that I have is why they don't fly a plane or two out there. Planes go over the ocean all the time, I know it for a fact. I also wonder why, instead of sending a bunch of Russian ships and nuclear subs, whose piss poor record for safety since the fall of the Soviet Union is pretty well documented, out there to find this proverbial needle in the haystack, why don't they just take a peek down there from their satellites. If the Russians can see the sweat dripping from my man-boobs while I am weeding the garden, and they can I guarantee you, they can see a bigass boat filled with timber floating on the Atlantic. Pulling out the satellites to find the boat would be like getting out a metal detector to find the needle - I can't for the life of me imagine why you wouldn't do it. The Russians have never been shy about that kind of stuff. Secondly, you and I both know, Company, that the Arctic Sea has satellite navigation capabilities. For that to work THREE satellites have to know where you are, so why isn't someone working with the company that provides that service? I just don't get it.
Maybe they wanted to go old school. Maybe they wanted to sort of flex their naval muscle and make sure their boys are still awake. Who knows? Either way the Russian Navy is out there looking for the Arctic Sea, and I expect it will turn up in the next day or two. There aren't a whole lot of places to hide in the world these days, it's gotten pretty small. Especially when the playing field is the central and north Atlantic. And then the truth in this whole matter will come out. I would not be surprised if this whole things ends up with corporate types biting the bullet in a Finnish courtroom. I still bet you will find the ship in the Azores though.

1 comment:

KingBobb said...

Beautiful Malta, known worldwide for the Maltese Cross, Maltese Dog, and Malt-o-meal.