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MV Alta ghost ship may have been undetected in Irish waters for over a month, marine investigation finds

The MV Alta washed ashore in Co Cork during Storm Dennis in February 2020.

shutterstock_1654282660 Shutterstock / Stephen Long Shutterstock / Stephen Long / Stephen Long

THE MV ALTA ghost ship could have been adrift in Irish waters for more than a month before washing ashore in Cork, a report from the Marine Casualty Investigation Board (MCIB) has found. 

The MCIB also found that the Irish State is entitled to remove the wreck and recommended a working group be set up to assess costs associated with any future shipwrecks. 

It comes after warnings that the ship is currently breaking apart with a decision on its future due in the coming weeks. 

The MV Alta, currently stranded along the coast at Ballyandreen, is a merchant ship built in 1976 that was abandoned by its crew in October 2018 after suffering a mechanical breakdown en route from Greece to Haiti. 

According to the MCIB’s report, the ship first departed Greece in September 2018 bound for Haiti in the Caribbean but suffered a main engine failure shortly after launching. 

When the ship was adrift approximately 1,380 miles southeast of Bermuda, the crew requested assistance.

Bermuda Maritime Operations Centre, Rescue Co-ordination Centre, (RCC Bermuda), co-ordinated the incident. Attempts by the vessel owners to hire and dispatch tugs from Venezuela, Guyana, and Bahamas were unsuccessful.

The ship’s crew reported that their supplies were low and a United States Coast Guard airplane dropped one week’s food provision on 2 October. 

As the ship’s owner negotiated tug assistance tropical Storm Leslie hit and a decision was made for all crew to abandon the ship. 

MV Alta drifted for 496 days over a distance of 2,300 nautical miles (NM) to its current position in Ballyandreen Bay. The vessels exact position and distance travelled during this time is unknown and unrecorded and can only be estimated.

As the 44-year-old ship gradually drifted eastwards it was sighted by the Royal Navy in August 2019. The HMS Protector attempted to make contact with the ship but received no response as the crew had already abandoned the vessel. 

It continued to drift before landing ashore at Ballyandreen near Ballycotton a year ago during Storm Denis. 

Ten days after the ship washed ashore, Cork County Council said that an operation to remove oil and other possible contaminants which had been collected into barrels had been successfully completed. The council then sealed the ship and rendered it inaccessible.

Following a structural assessment of the ship in October, the council warned the Department of Transport that there is a risk of the hull of the ship breaking apart and that it plans to write to a number of Government departments – including the Department of Finance – to request funding support and to ask what the “State’s objectives” are regarding the shipwreck.

The MCIB report found that the Irish Coast Guard and Naval Service were unable to identify the ship’s position or identity it due to the lack of an active on-board tracking system.

This it said posed “a significant navigation hazard to commercial and recreational vessels in its vicinity.”

“The only safeguard these vessels had was a reliance on their on-board radar systems and the diligence of the bridge and wheelhouse watch-keepers in keeping a good lookout, particularly at times or reduced visibility.”

Documents released to show that the Department of Transport vetted the ship’s certificate of registry with Tanzanian authorities and that officials pursued whether a Nairobi certificate was available from a representative of the ship’s owner, who had written to Revenue in the meantime. 

A ‘Nairobi cert’ is an insurance document required under ‘The Nairobi International Convention on the Removal of Wrecks’ for vessels greater than 300 tonnes. 

The MCIB found that under the Nairobi Convention Ireland is entitled to remove the wreck. 

The Council has indicated three possible options for the future of the wreck: Leave it in situ at Ballyandreen, tow it out to sea and let it sink, or dismantle and remove the wreck.

Responsibility for the wreck, the MCIB report found, rests with Ireland and its maritime search and rescue agencies.

The report also found that the likelihood of pollution remains high until the wreck is removed and that the cost of removal will likely be borne by the State. 

The Council most recently recruited international experts to advise on what steps it should take to deal with the grounded ghost ship and asked the public to stay away from the wreck. 

The MCBI recommended that the a working group be convened. This should include members from the Irish Coast Guard, the Naval Service, Irish Lights, the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority and other interested parties.

“The working group should explore the risks and potential costs to the State presented by derelict ships entering Irish territorial waters and coming ashore in Ireland and make proposals for means to identify, monitor, track and interdict derelict ships before they endanger other ships and seafarers in the vicinity,” the report states. 

“The working group should be also aware of the EU dimension and be prepared to make recommendations to other European agencies…on their deliberations.”

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