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From Bermuda to Ballycotton: The long and lonely Atlantic journey of 'ghost ship' the MV Alta

The ship was abandoned some 16 months ago as tropical storm Leslie approached Bermuda.

AN ABANDONED CARGO ship which ran aground near Ballycotton in east Cork yesterday has travelled an incredibly long way. 

The vessel has been drifting across the Atlantic for the last sixteen months before finally hitting land on Ireland’s south coast. 

Here’s what we know about its improbable journey. 

The ship is question is the MV Alta. Vesselfinder.com records that it was built in 1976, measures 77 metres in length and is 13 metres wide at its widest point. 

The ship formerly sailed under the Tanzanian flag but is now the responsibility of Ireland’s Minister for the Marine under the Salvage and Wreck Act 1993.

The ship’s problems began in September 2018 when it and a 10-person crew were travelling across the Mediterranean and the Atlantic from Greece to Haiti.

The ship became disabled on its journey and the crew were unable to carry out essential repairs. 

By October 2018 the ship was essentially drifting and the US Coast Guard put its location at some 2,220 kilometres southeast of Bermuda. 

At the beginning of that month, the crew reported that they had enough food for two days and water for 15 days and the US Coast Guard instigated a successful operation to drop further supplies to the vessel and its crew.  

The supply drop was intended to provide food for the crew as it awaited the arrival of a tug boat to bring the vessel to dock.

Several efforts by tug boats at reaching the vessel were unsuccessful, however, and with tropical storm Leslie approaching, the decision was taken to abandon the ship. 

A spokesperson for the Bermuda Maritime Operations Centre said at the time

USCG Cutter Confidence arrived on scene Monday 8 October offering assistance to ship’s crew as negotiations for tug assistance ashore continued. With the onset of TS Leslie and damage to vessel main engine, a decision was made for all crew [Panamanian, Honduran & Greek nationals] to abandon vessel.

There were no reported injuries on-board with initial intention for survivors to be repatriated via Bermuda, but now bound for San Juan, Puerto Rico. M/V Alta remains adrift to the southeast of Bermuda as salvage attempts by owners continue.

From that point the vessel was essentially at the mercy of Atlantic currents and it continued to drift on a northeasterly direction across the ocean.

There had been a number of reports that the ship was subsequently hijacked by pirates but this was not verified. 

In September 2019, 11 months after it was abandoned, British Royal Navy Ship HMS Protector discovered the MV Alta in the middle of the Atlantic.

HMS Protector was traversing the ocean on its way to assist in Hurricane Dorian relief efforts and the crew took a number of photos of the ghostly vessel.

Initially the Royal Navy did not know the origins of the ship, first describing it as an “apparently abandoned Merchant Vessel” before two days later confirming it had been identified as the MV Alta. 

Key to understanding the journey of the vessel across the Atlantic is in understanding that the prevailing currents in this direction. 

The Gulf Stream and then the North Atlantic Current carries warm water and air from Florida and the southeastern United States and it is likely that the MV Alta was carried along by such ocean patterns.

The extreme weather from Storm Dennis then brought the vessel on to the rocks in Cork. 

Former cargo ship captain and owner of consultancy firm Maritime Expert Ireland Johan Voogt said such a journey is not unexpected. 

He says people may know about the movement of currents and warm air from Africa the United States as a feature of North America’s hurricane season, but that they may be unaware of similar currents towards Ireland.  

If you look at the currents, the normal currents, you have the currents about the equator then you have the currents coming from Africa, from the Sahara, towards the Bermuda Triangle. Obviously, this is during the summer season. And that’s why at the end of the summer you have the hurricane seasons in the US and Caribbean. And once they hit the shore, obviously they’re being diverted. And when the current and the wind divert, it comes back in storms here like Ciara, like Dennis. That is a standard pattern.

990px-Golfstream Evolution of the Gulf Stream to the west of Ireland continuing as the North Atlantic Current. Source: Wikimedia

“So, if the vessel  is abandoned around the Bermuda Triangle then obviously during the course of wintery period they will be drifted drifting towards Europe, “ Voogt adds. 

The Dutch captain also says that the vessel’s original location when it lost power is of course vital because if it had been south of the equator it would likely have “drifted towards South Africa”.

The future of the vessel is now less clear with environmental scientists from Cork County Council visiting the area today and saying they are satisfied there is no visible pollution. 

The ship will now be boarded tomorrow before further decisions are taken. The Irish State has general powers to move a vessel if it is unclaimed, so is likely to do so in this case. 

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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