Almost four months after a “ghost ship” ran aground in Ireland, the authorities are still trying to trace the owners. And it now looks like the Irish taxpayers are faced with a cleanup operation that could run into many millions of euros.
The 77-meter-long (approx. 250-foot) cargo ship Alta grounded on rocks off the County Cork coast in February this year after it was brought ashore by Storm Denis; the ship had been drifting across the Atlantic Ocean from Bermuda for more than a year.
“This is one in a million,” local lifeboat chief John Tattan told Irish Examiner.
Tattan, who is the head of Ballycotton’s Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), said that he had “never, ever seen anything abandoned like that before.”
Since the grounding, the mystery of who owns the ship remains unresolved—leaving the Irish authorities with a giant headache over what to do. According to salvage expert Mark Hoddinott, removing the wreck could cost more than 10 million euros (US$11.3 million).
Speaking to the Irish broadcaster RTE, Hoddinott said: “Whether the state would want to remove her just because she was an eyesore, I doubt. The cost of removing her would be quite considerable too—5 million to 10 million euros, or I would say probably a bit higher. Is it really worth it? My own view would be, probably not.”
Hoddinott added that because of the vessel’s age, the scrap value is low.
However, being left as a coastal eyesore to rust and be broken up by the waves is a prospect that is making local people bristle.
The tangled backstory to the “ghost ship” is a salutary reminder that the owners, whoever they may be, should always take responsibility. Their duty is to own the financial and environmental mess they create and bear responsibility for the lives of their crews.
What is transparent, according to the BBC, is that things started to go wrong for the crew of the Alta on passage from Greece to Haiti in September 2018. Due to unidentified problems, the ship lost power. It then began drifting for almost three weeks, about 1,300 miles southeast of Bermuda.
According to the U.S. Coast Guard, which was monitoring the situation, they dropped emergency supplies by helicopter to the crew, who were down to just two days of food left on board. But the crew’s plight took another turn for the worse as a hurricane approached.
With the lives of the crew in peril on an unsteerable drifting ship, the U.S. Coastguard decided to evacuate the 10-strong crew to Puerto Rico. At the time, the Bermuda Coastguard confirmed the ship remained adrift, the BBC reported.
The aging vessel, with no crew on board, was left to the mercy of the seas and was not spotted again until September 2019. The United Kingdom’s Royal Navy patrol ship HMS Protector found the Alta in the mid-Atlantic. After the Royal Navy confirmed that no one was aboard, the Navy ship’s Twitter account tweeted: “Efforts may continue to recover her, but her future lies in the hands of others.”
The hazard to shipping continued its wanderings, apparently unclaimed until Storm Dennis drove her onto the rocks in Ireland.
However, the Guardian reported that the 1976-built Alta had been flagged in Tanzania but had changed hands in 2017, the year before leaving Greece on her final voyage. After the crew was rescued at some point, the Guardian claimed the Alta was “reportedly towed to Guyana and then hijacked.”
The already murky history of the Alta, then, deepens yet further. It is clear, though, that the owners appear to have abandoned the ship’s crew to their fate while apparently making zero effort to get the vessel repaired in the 20 days it was adrift.
Further, they thoroughly washed their hands off all responsibility to secure their ship and prevent it from becoming a potentially life-threatening hazard to shipping and the marine environment.