Universal Bizargo: Mystery of the Vanishing Ship & Phantom Pirates
by Jared Vineyard
Today’s Universal Bizargo is a shipping mystery. We want to hear you weigh in on what you think happened.
On January 18th, a ship disappeared from Angolan waters.
The ship was the Greek owned and Liberian-flagged oil tanker, the MT Kerala. The tanker was transporting 60,000 metric tons of diesel when contact with the MT Kerala was lost, according to an article from Bloomberg.
Suspicions were that the MT Kerala was hijacked by pirates.
“Dryad Maritime Intelligence, a U.K.-based shipping intelligence firm, said that it had warned of a ‘suspect vessel operating off the Angolan coast’ in the days leading up to the MT Kerala’s disappearance,” reported the Wall Street Journal after the ship went missing.
If the suspicions turned out to be true, this would be the most southerly such hijacking in waters off West Africa, according to the Wall Street Journal article. Reuters reported that pirate attacks increased by a third last year off West Africa, but also agreed with The Wall Street Journal by adding any attack off of Angola would be the most southerly to date.
A ship getting hijacked by pirates in the waters off West Africa, even if farther south than has previously happened, may not seem bizarre. But wait, this story is about to get weird.
The MT Kerala has been found in Nigeria and, according to the Angola Navy, the ship’s crew faked being hijacked by pirates.
“‘It was all faked, there have been no acts of piracy in Angolan waters,’ [Angola Navy spokesman Captain Augusto Alfredo Lourenco] told Reuters. ‘What happened on January 18, when we lost contact with the ship, was that the crew disabled the communications on purpose. There was no hijacking.”‘
With the suspected hijacking of the MT Kerala, maritime worries of piracy in waters by Africa’s top crude producing nation’s increased. Captain Lourenco and the Angola Navy’s account of the events around the MT Kerala, as reported by Bloomberg, address those piracy fears:
“While it was waiting for authorization to unload the diesel in Luanda on January 18, the tanker was contacted by the tugboat Gare,” Lourenco said. “The crew of the tanker disconnected the communication system and headed toward Nigeria together with the tug,” he said. “The empty tanker was found in Nigeria.”
“There isn’t any risk of pirate attacks in Angola even though we worry about this problem in the Gulf of Guinea to the north,” Lourenco said. “We are constantly patrolling our waters.”
So the crew of the MT Kerala shut down their communications and left their destination after a tugboat contacted them, went to Nigeria, and emptied the tanker of its cargo?
Dynacom Tankers, owner of the MT Kerala, refutes the Angola Navy claim that the crew simulated a pirate attack, saying the tanker really was hijacked.
“‘Pirates hijacked the vessel offshore Angola and stole a large quantity of cargo by ship-to-ship transfer. The pirates have now disembarked,’ the company said in a statement,” another Reuters article reports.
For the moment, the situation is a mystery. Was the MT Kerala attacked by pirates or was the pirate attack hoaxed? Was that tugboat the mysterious “suspect vessel” spoken of or “a replica of one involved in a pirate attack off Gabon last year” as Laurenco claimed in the Reuters article?
Let’s look at motives. The Angola Navy has not given any indication as to what would motivate the crew of the MT Kerala to fake a pirate hijacking, but there is motive for the Angola Navy to claim that no pirate attack happened in their waters.
Angola Navy motives for claiming the hijacking was faked are twofold:
-One: they are supposed to be protecting those waters. If a tanker was hijacked by pirates under the Angola Navy’s watch, it would be a failure to do their duty of protecting the ships in their water.
-Two: Angola is the African continent’s second leading crude producer which is largely shipped by sea. Lack of confidence in shipping oil through the waters off Angola could cause a major economic hit for the country.
That is not to say the Angola Navy is lying and just because they have not released speculation on the crew’s motives to fake a hijacking does not mean one does not exist.
What could motivate the crew to shut down communications and fake a hijacking? The most likely motive would be money.
If the crew sold the cargo of the ship themselves, they could stand to make a great deal of money. Being hijacked in the dangerous waters off West Africa would make for an excellent cover, allowing the crew to be seen as victims instead of criminals.
Of course, it would be quite the conspiracy for the crew to fake a hijacking and sell the 60,000 tons of diesel themselves. But it’s not impossible.
Dynacom Tankers would certainly have motive to dispute the claim that their crew faked being hijacked by pirates. The loss of that cargo to their own crew would be very bad for business if customers found out about it.
So far, statements from the crew have not been released, but they are reported to all be safe.
So we’re in the middle of a he said, she said debate.
What do you think? Were there pirates? Did the crew fake it? Let us know in the comments section below.