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On hold

I'm still in Montreal, doing touristy things; flying home overnight tomorrow night, probably won't be fully recovered until Monday.

Meanwhile, can any of you tell me what this is all about? (Other than real life emulating a Ken Follett novel.)

Update Arctic Sea found, eight arrested for hijacking. Weird indeed, but perhaps not quite as weird as it seemed at first (if the Russian authorities are telling the truth).

68 Comments

1:

I guess the simplest possible answer is a Russian crackdown on what people called piracy a decade or two back. It's about time someone does that. (Honestly.)

Ok, that's the simplest possible answer, most likely too simple, as the Baltic hasn't been known to harbor pirates for the last 6 centuries or so.

What else could it be? (Don tinfoil hat before reading any further.) Well, anything that contains plutonium-239 or high concentrations of uranium-235. Ballistic missles also have roughly the same dimensions as tree trunks. It could be about someone on board or it could be documents too sensitive to be sent via radio transmission, email or other more mundane means. Finally, it could be a trillion dollars of treasuries or two. (Remember the Japanese guys trying to smuggle some to Switzerland?)

2:

The claim that Customs Officers didn't find anything is hogwash. Ships are complicated. Something small is easy to hide. The claim isn't credible unless some special search was done.

And something like a WE177 isn't all that large.

That's the Ken Follett or Tom Clancy scenario, and I wouldn't want that ship to drop anchor on my side of the horizon.

A concealed storage compartment for drugs, or droids, wouldn't justify this sort of action by a state agency. What justifies something this complicated?

There have been cases of timber cargoes having illicit goods hidden in the timber. There's been a few cases of bundles of sawn timber been rigged to hide cigarettes, so there might be something on the ship worth the piracy.

I'm inclined to the gang-war theory. Any big Russian-funded development projects in Malta, that might be delayed by a shipload of timber vanishing?

As the meerkat says, "Simple."

4:

As the meerkat says, "Simple."

"Shimples!"

5:

I agree with Mark Dickinson (quoted in the article): it is a bit odd that it apparently was boarded and then sailed all the way to the Bay of Biscay before disappearing and nobody picked up on it. This all happened more than 2 weeks ago, note. The ship could be anywhere by now from Nicaragua to Angola, or even at the bottom of the sea. If it is still afloat, bet its not called the Artic Sea any more.

6:

Question: How hard is it to find a ship that size using satelites and the like? Am I seriously overestimating just how big the ship is and how good our eyes in the skies are?

7:

My first thought is: Wow, it's August.

My second thought is: Ummmm, what's missing here. Oh yeah, satellites. Where are the tech guys grabbing the satellite imagery to see if they can track the ship on Google? I'm in the wrong hemisphere: was everywhere in the North Sea cloudy for weeks, or something?

So the weird thing is we're doing a 1950s-style search for a ship. And what's weirder is that a government that perhaps might be experimenting with cyberwar (i.e. people who aren't idiots about the uses of the internet) is sending out ships to look for another ship.

I'm not sure that there is a special secret cargo on this ship. Perhaps the real reason Russia's so hot to find the ship is that the darn thing might actually have been made to disappear in the British Channel, despite our alleged surveillance society. That's a neat trick, and I'd certainly want to question the people who pulled it off. If their technique is repeatable, that's valuable knowledge....

8:

AH HA! I thought Dick Cheney was being awfully quiet for awhile :)

9:

How many servitors would fit on a ship that size? I'm guessing eight.

10:

There is a wide variety of possibilities. Here are the ones I can think of offhand.

1) The ship sank due to human error, not deliberate interference. (If so, when was the distress signal and where is the buoy?)

2) The cargo was always a MacGuffin, from the moment it left port. On 24 July, attackers took it, stayed for four days successfully coercing the crew to make radio contact, killed said crew, and left. (Really? They stayed for four days just to get the crew to make a radio call, when they could have been using that time to flee with their ill-gotten gains?)

3) The cargo was always a MacGuffin, from the moment it left port. But the attackers were not retrieving it, but destroying it. (What are miles and miles of water good for?)

4) The cargo was not a MacGuffin when it left port. Instead, the MacGuffin joined the cargo when the attackers placed it there on 24 July. When the crew made radio contact 28 July, they thought everything was fine. (How small was it, that it could be hidden onboard and go unnoticed for so long? Isotope small? Pathogen small? Assassin small?) This is similar to option No. 3, and requires that something on the ship needed destroying. (A crew member? A document? The black box?)

5) The attackers are a lie. The crew was never clean, and neither was the customs agent. ("I'm telling you this guy is protected from up on high by the Prince of Darkness.")

6) The satellites are delivering false results, either by operator intent or error. (Who can falsify those results? Can they be gamed by those being surveilled?)

7) This is a long con whose ultimate targets are the other ships looking for the original lost ship. (But how might one predict which sub arrives there first?)

As much as I like this game, I'm probably boring everyone. My bet is that the MacGuffin was always there, that neither the crew nor the infrastructure were clean, that the attackers were a lie (an especially timely -- if unlikely -- bit of misdirection), that the ship has already docked somewhere, and that the MacGuffin, while possibly uranium or some of the isotopes the world is so damned short on at present, is most likely a group of women and children whose ultimate fate lies in the hands of the highest bidder. It's not a terribly intriguing idea, but executing it requires the least amount of engagement from the lowest number of people. The more convoluted the scheme, the larger the number of participants involved, the greater the number of opportunities for fuck-ups. If the Maltese Falcon Arctic Sea was carrying something "even more expensive and dangerous," then the mission was a failure. Had it succeeded, we wouldn't be hearing about it.

Were there cameras on the port? Is there footage of timber entering the boat, or are we relying on a rubberstamped document saying it was "timber"? I'll revise my opinion if such evidence arrives. Otherwise I think that there were a lot of "visitors" boarding the vessel during those two weeks in Kaliningrad, and that they never left.

That, or Immanuel Kant rose from his grave and decided to go sailing. Either way.

11:

Unless they really were fitting a docking collar for a submarine (Clancy scenario) the two weeks in Kaliningrad is a red herring fitting a concealed compartment for a nuclear weapon (SS20's excluded)could be done in under three days - a ships bilges are vast all you need is a secret and secure way in.

As I understand it satellites find ships at sea mainly by looking for their wake. The ship is the dot at the apex. So if it is adrift there's no wake.

If the ship has gone down, yes the deck cargo would float but you wouldn't be able to see that from a surface ship until parts of it bounced off the hull. Timber from Finland is normally in presawm packs which would break up into individual planks rather than surface as mini wooden bergs (wood is a lousy radar reflector).

So either pirate have diverted the ship to another port where it's getting/got a cosmetic makeover prior to being sold on, or it's at the bottom with or without it's cargo of record.

To paraphrase 'Follow the money' who actually gains?

12:

@7 Re finding a lost vessel. Its not that simple. In t pictures its clear that the ship is no supertanker just a small freighter. There are hundreds of similar ships in just the North East Atlantic every single day. You try finding the right one.

Also the satellite resolution isn't that great anyway (see post 11). Do the satellites really have 100% visual coverage of the ocean surface? I doubt it. I especially doubt whether they would have real-time coverage.

And the ocean surface is VAST. People always underestimate how big it is. The world's surface is more than twice as much water as land. And after 2 weeks the boat could be anywhere - it can stean for 24 hours a day in any direction. Even at a pathetic 10 knots/hour that is a lot of miles.

Personally I don't think people-smuggling is the most likely answer. But they were probably carrying something or someone that some other bad guy wanted.

13:

RORSATs - Radar Ocean Reconnaissance satellites. The Soviets specialised in them, to monitor the US and other NATO surface fleets but I'd be amazed if the US didn't also have them. They're power-hungry as they have active transmitters rather than using passive sensors (the Soviet models had small nuclear power plants on board) but they work through cloud cover and cargo ships aren't stealthed to any degree.

Whether the data is available or not is another matter.

14:

Robert, how would a RORSAT system find a particular ship if it didn't know what it "looked" like?

15:

Of course we can't tell you. It's a secret. Jeez.

16:

I would imagine that most ocean-going ships have some kind of transponder on them which tells you where they are. To hide the ship, switch off the transponder. To find the ship, cross-reference all the radar targets in a selected bit of sea against all the transponders. Send your helicopter (you did _bring_ a helicopter, didn't you? With your frigate? Hope so.) to investigate any big rader target which isn't known to Lloyds, Inmarsat or whoever. Repeat until you find the ship. NB - all navies are advised that unless you've got inside knowlege which allows you to pick the correct selected bit of sea, this is liable to take a long time.

RORSATs give you a nice long list of targets, but this is no help withou the helicopter. Perhaps you could substitute a flight of Nimrods or Bears - but then be prepared for the target to flash 'You and whose navy?' at you in morse when you politely ask them to stop.

17:

Latest news: EU doubts that it was really piracy:

http://uk.news.yahoo.com/22/20090814/tpl-uk-russia-ship-eu-9562ed3.html

@16 According to BBC news reports passim the transponder was switched off (i.e. stopped transmitting, not necessarily by the crew)on 29 July - which is when the ship is considered to have gone missing in the Bay of Biscay. The transponder is how they know where it was before then (i.e. travelling through the Baltic Straight and down the west coast of Europe).

@13 I still question whether they would have 100% ocean coverage with ROR. If not, it won't help.

18:

@14: I imagine that nations with RORsat capability probably spend lots of time compiling databases of radar returns from ships and correlating them against transponders and known movements of foreign naval units.

I mean, if you're going to spend several billion dollars/roubles on that kind of look-down capability, it makes sense to know what you're looking down on, right?

19:

Of course, there's the obvious motive for Russia (or any other country) which is to protect the sanctity of the flag. That's what got the US involved off Somalia, which was that an American-flagged ship got hijacked. The US had to respond, just to show that messing with a US-flagged vessel was a Bad Thing. Thinking about it, I'm sure Russia has similar motives.

That said, I'd suspect that there was satellite monitoring of the ship down to the Bay of Biscay, simply because it's in too many countries' borderlands, and I can't imagine them not looking. Assuming no one was stupid enough to throw the satellite data away within two weeks, they can simply go through the old images and get a profile for the ship. Finding it after it turned off its transponder is a little trickier, but they know what it looked like, so I'd expect them to attempt to track it through subsequent satellite images as it went--wherever.

Assuming the Russians really don't know where the ship is right now, there's an interesting problem, because either it was sunk (where's the oil slick?) or it somehow managed to slip through the satellite net to become an anonymous ship somewhere. Knowing how the hypothetical bad guys did that might be important, because if they could slip through a satellite net, it means either they were lucky, or they know where every satellite is, including the stealthed ones...and where did they get that information?

Since most modern-day pirates make their money off the ransom, it's weird that they haven't contacted the ship's owners with their demands.

20:

We've only TASS' word for it that the initial boarding by these armed men actually took place at all. All we know from reliable sources (MCA and Interpol) is that the ship sailed from Finland, transited the Channel and turned its transponder off in the Bay of Biscay. It was supposed to be heading for Algeria but didn't arrive.

""Radio calls were apparently received from the ship which had supposedly been under attack twice, the first time off the Swedish coast then off the Portuguese coast,"

...just not their day, is it?

I reckon it's a normal Russian commercial dispute over the ownership of the ship and/or its cargo.

21:

@19 it has already been mentioned that the "image" you would have is more like a wake with a dot in front. Even assuming you can see the ship, as opposed to a tiny dot, there are literally hundreds of vessels passing through that region every day. I have seen the pictures of that ship, it looks like pretty much any other small freighter - there is no way you could identify it positively from any sat image.

Any road up, the ROR programme ended in 1988. I doubt if there are many ROR sats still up after 20 years. The US still doesn't have that capability really, neither do the Chinese, or any European powers, certainly not the UK and we have more coastline than any other. There are satellites that could be used, but their primary function is not to monitor civilian maritime traffic.

Also @19, as previously mentioned, the ship was tracked by its transponder down to the BoB, that is clear from the reports. The transponder was then turned off or failed.

22:

@20 "certainly not the UK and we have more coastline than any other". Because if we did, we would be using it look at that area which is right next door to England and probably the busiest shipping lane in the world, and we don't.

23:

It's been found near the Cap Verde islands.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/8202308.stm

24:

@23 Mark 1 eyeball scores again

25:

None of you are cleared for CASE OREO WHATZIT.

26:

I was going to say:

A hijacked ship just happens to be sunk by a methane upwelling? Well, it could happen.

Hijacking a ship for some small piece of cargo only makes sense if you're trying to keep it from whoever is receiving it. Look to the destination and see who is waiting for a clue to what it may be, perhaps.

But, if it's really been spotted, then nevermind.

27:

@23: good spotting. Cape Verde??? That's so...traditional. Heck, didn't Darwin stop there on the way to Brazil???

Mea culpa: I didn't realize that it was a maltese-flagged ship, not Russian-flagged.

@21: according to the "patch-intel" from Trevor Paglin, the US has been quite busy launching spysats with some sort of radar capability in the last decade or two, and according to the 8/16 Wired Danger Room Blog, the US Pentagon has a $US 35 billion, 80% of which is going to the Air Force "for satellites and communications."

So maybe not ROR sats, but we've got birds up looking at things almost certainly with meter or sub-meter resolution, and I'm pretty sure the Russians still have some of the same capability.

I would agree with the "dot on the end of a wake" theory if I hadn't played with Google maps. When I can identify my car sitting in a parking lot, I don't believe that our spysats are sitting there with 100 meter accuracy, like a landsat from the 80s. Someone should check me on this, but I recall some thought about purchasing satellite imagery from the Russians to make up for the US government cutting off access to one of their satellites.

28:

@27: When I can identify my car sitting in a parking lot..
Those images are taken using aircraft, not satellites. Satellite resolution is certainly better than 80's era Landsat, but not that good.
See
http://www.qinetiq.com/home/newsroom/news_releases_homepage/2005/4th_quarter/TopSat_first_image.html

29:

From our very own DARPA-equivalent, too! Not going to spot a car or even a ship from that.

30:

@27: Good point, but even the publically available TopSat in 2005 had a 2.8 m resolution. I'd bet that would be sufficient to ID a small freighter, unless there were a lot of identical-looking freighters floating around.

As for the sensitivity of the spysats, I have only speculation, but there are two good lines of evidence:
1. They haven't been in a hurry to replace the SR-71. They *might* have a DarkStar type drone for high-speed high-altitude recon, but the thinking for a long time was that spysats were replacing the planes.
2. When Hubble first flew, as I recall, it had problems with vibrations from the solar panels. Apparently, the heat-up/cool-down cycle of going in and out Earth's shadow made it shake for a while. When the problem was reported, it eventually surfaced that the Air Force had experienced similar problems with their spysats before Hubble was even launched, but hadn't bothered to tell NASA. I tend to think that Hubble-level resolution would be wasteful in a spy satellite, but that has been the comparison ever since, Hubbles pointed towards Earth. I'd be surprised if they don't have something like submeter accuracy, hampered by atmospheric turbulence as much as anything.

Anyway, the ship has turned up, news at 11. Hopefully there will be a good story attached.

31:

I dunno what happened but I look forward to seeing how you work it into the next Laundry novel.

32:

I'm currently wondering:

a) How small the transponder is;
b) How hard it is to fake the return..

33:

@30:
Here's the best commercially available imagery, 0.5m resolution
http://www.digitalglobe.com/downloads/featured_images/sydney_dec31_2007_dgwm.jpg
Military resolution is estimated to be maybe 5-10 times greater.

But the point to remember is that there's an inverse relationship between magnification and field of view. In other words, the closer you can zoom in, the more finely pointed you have to be. Fine if you want to take photos of the Kremlin or the Pentagon - you know exactly where it is, and it doesn't keep moving around. But a ship? You'd have to know pretty much exactly where it was before you took the photo. Oh, wait...

34:

@33. I absolutely agree on the resolution vs. field of view point. I seriously doubt that any satellite without some way of changing the magnification and field of view. The basic point is that a satellite in orbit could take a picture of a ship with sufficient magnification to identify it, and even over a broad field at low resolution, if they've got a transponder and radar referenced ship at a particular location and some idea of it's course (i.e. through the English Channel), they can start tracking that ship, unless it looks so very much like every other ship around it that it can do some sort of shell game and get mistaken for another ship.

In any event, I think my first point stands: making a ship disappear in the middle of a busy shipping lane is interesting, because it reveals problems in your own surveillance network, and possibly in the surveillance network of other countries. These are worth knowing. I think that might be one reason that the Russians would like to talk with these guys.

35:

@33 & others. It don't matter how you slice it. Even on Google earths imagery (which is taken by airplane not satellite), you could not reliably identify a specific car. When you see "your" car on Google earth, how do you "know" it is yours? Most likely by the make and possibly model plus the colour & because it is where you park it. A particular car that you don't own in a random location? You would have no idea whose it was.

You can't see the ding in the front fender or the numberplate. You all are underestimating (again) how similar these ships are. The paintjob tells you nothing, and can be changed in a heartbeat (or at least in a day). They are all built to a plan, pretty much like your ford mondeo, there is no way to tell them apart from 150 miles up at current sat resolutions. Tell me (or better yet prove to me) I'm wrong . . .

36:

@30: The Hubble was designed to fit into the Space Shuttle's cargo bay. The Shuttle was partly financed through the military budget and designed to carry Keyhole-sized spy satellites for the NRO. The mirrors on both are about the same size (220cm approx) and knowing that you can calculate the best resolution in optimum conditions which is about 8cm for visible light, a little worse for infrared. Other factors will reduce this resolution -- cloud, haze, smoke, slanted viewing angles to get sideways looks at something but you can take it as read that the optics and sensors will be as good as they can get.

Hunting ships isn't too much of a problem in today's modern world once you have a single identified fix in time, latitude and longtitude. They only move so fast so even if you have non-overlapping snapshots the circular error is never very great and the number of possibles in the next snapshot can usually be reduced to one candidate quite easily. They can't hide on the open ocean, not from radars on maritime patrol craft as well as orbital RORSATs, land-based coastal radars and even other ships radars which now routinely record their observations. It's an Intelligence problem after that, collecting the info and providing a track record of the ship's movements. The collection and collation of the data might be problematic though.

37:

@36 8cm? You're 150 miles up and you can resolve an image of an 8cm square object? No, what I think you mean is 1 pixel = 8cm. Right?

I don't think you would be able to read the large H on the helideck of a carrier at that resolution, far less the name on the rear which is at a very odd angle for viewing from above.

38:

@37: 8cm is effectively one pixel, yes. It's unlikely a Keyhole would be tasked to track this ship -- there are only a few of them in orbit at any one time and their targeting priorities are determined by the US government which probably doesn't have that much interest in spotting this ship. Other earth observation satellites such as Spot could do the job of looking for such a ship. It wouldn't be identified by its name painted anywhere but by what it looks like from above, assuming clear skies and a decent chance at imaging.

The assorted terrestrial and airborne radar records plus tagging from the times when its transponder was operational are more useful sources of tracking info. The main disadvantage is that collecting the info and collating it takes time so they may be able to say where the ship was a few hours back but not be able to say with any certainty where it is right now unless a real-time eyeball report comes in (as in, it was spotted in the Cape Verde area).

39:

I think I'm going for "insufficient data".

I would like to note that as a smuggling operation this only makes sense if whatever is supposed to get lost is already lost, and the ship is being sent on to widen the scope of the possible with respect to where that thing might be lost.

Also consider what you can get on a pack of cards worth of USB sticks. It doesn't have to be sexy radioactive anything to be worth major state response. (The real Russian oil and gas reserves report, say, with abstracted raw data; you could probably get that in a practical number of USB sticks or a couple of VXA X23 tapes.)

The thing I would most like to understand is why whoever is giving the Russian Navy orders thinks this is worth sending the whole active Atlantic Fleet off to search; that's not commercial-dispute scale. That's not even really "escaping hostages" scale. That's either "we don't want this to be at all secret" or "the risk is such that secrecy cannot be tolerated if it increases the risk of the leak/escape/shipment succeeding".

40:

Perhaps it wasn't regular timber onboard, perhaps it was a ship load of genetically engineered stage trees. The ship is currently sitting on the equator somewhere waiting for the launch window to open (or the seas to calm down enough) whereupon it'll launch the secret Russian-Finnish entry in the Google Moon thingy. Or lobsters on their way to Jupiter to check out the starship that recently blew up out there.

41:

Or the vessel was removed from this simverse because it was mistakenly given the name of a sea instead of a proper ship name, and this caused a programming conflict.

42:

The assumption that pirates were in control at Dover doesn't make sense - why would they have reported their own attack several days before, risking being boarded by police as they go through the straits south of Sweden?

My likely, I think:

Crew gets drunk, ship stops 12 hours with no one at the helm. They try to cover the gap with a wild story. Swedish police discount it as a wild story, correctly believing they were just drunk - so they don't get boarded by local coast guard/navy/police as they continue on with the transponder still active.

They continue on, but at some point they are contacted by the ship's owners, who don't appear amused by their story. They panic, turn off the transponder, and disappear. Their careers are over anyhow, maybe they can sell the ship or cargo.

43:

Well since the ship has apparently been spotted off teh West Africa, I assume we will find out what the facts are soon enough.

44:

Random comparison...

Let's see, the ship disappeared two weeks ago around the BAy of Biscay, and today shows up some distance north of Cape Verde.

Compare another ship that sailed from England on December 27 and pulled into Porto Praya, Cape Verde Islands on January 16. That, by the way, was 27 Dec 1831 to 16 Jan 1832, and the person? Charles Darwin.

Doesn't look like the freighter made the crossing much faster than the HMS Beagle did. Weird. I thought the freighter would travel faster. Unless it stopped somewhere in between...

What was that about technology and speed not advancing exponentially?

45:

I am a seaman myself, so here's my two scenarios-
Version 1:
Some thugs beat the shit out of the crew and scare them senseless two weeks ago.
They leave the ship, telling them: We know where your children go to school, your parents live etc.

Instructions to the crew: "Do us the favour, drop that cargo off in (random country with high corruption). Our business partners in (random country) will take care of the transaction once you are there...

Has happened before, mostly in the South China sea, only that the Chinese pirates usually kill the crew rather than let them live.

Version 2:
Crew gets robbed and beaten up pretty badly, too.
Being seamen, their living conditions are bad: Bad food and not enough of it, never enough spare parts to keep the vessel running properly and thus get a full night's sleep during the nights, payment doesn't arrive in time and if it arrives, it's always a bit less than it was agreed upon. The relievers are always late, they are on duty for seven months already and want to go home.
So everybody is a bit tense.
Now the ship is robbed!
Being robbed they might expect a bit of a compensation from the shipping company, as a lot of their personal property was stolen, too.
Maybe the ship owner even told them: Well, the money in the ships safe was supposed to be your overdue wages for the last and the next two months (on ships the wages are often paid in dollars and cash)-your problem if your wages get stolen.
So no compensation, no food, no sleep, no relievers, no money.
If they sign off now they know they will never get any compensation.
So the captain calls a meeting: How about we hold the ransom till the ship owner and the ship operator and the ship manager (three separate companies) have figured out who is paying our wages and our stolen property.
So off they go, with reduced speed, headed to an area where it's difficult to get at them, waiting for some money to arrive...

Has happened before, too, a crew holding a ship for ransom when wages and bills are not being paid.

46:

This was also in the local paper, when it happened.

Here's a more complete version of the story of the Girl Pat.

47:

Why use the whole Atlantic Fleet? Well, what else is it good for? More to the point, this is quite a good way of reminding the world that 'We're back', as was the resumption of Bear jaunts to the North Sea.

Crazy theory number 28: it's actually a live exercise set up by the Russian navy, which has got more international publicity than was planned. But my silly money's on the stage tree / lobster explanation.

49:

Oh, it gets more confusing than that, Greg.

The Russians say that the ship's transponder was turned back on and it's somewhere off the coast of France, but the French say the signal is coming from the group of Russian warships there.

Crazy theory 37: The whole thing was planned by a group within the Russian Navy as their private "retirement fund", including some high-ranking officers, and went awry, which is why they're now panicking and sending warships hither and yon.

What "whole thing"? Well, how about combining various of the theories above:

Let's postulate that the group is selling on a nuclear warhead to name-your-unpopular-government, perhaps with tacit approval of various someones high-up? As a cover story, they tell the lower-ranking members of the group that it's a heroin shipment from the Taklamakan plateau. Then a faction within the group decides that there is no reason they should be sharing the proceeds with the whole group and the higher-ups, and arranges that curious interception - which might or might not have removed the Macguffin. (Perhaps the hiding place had been changed, perhaps it was never loaded aboard, perhaps they freaked and bailed out when it wasn't what they were expecting it to be.) The reason the stories about the initial boarding sound so peculiar for piracy is that they were showing genuine military ID not fake narc ID, but the crew were warned not to say that.

Several days later, the captain and crew finish working out what's going on, realize the implications, decide they'll be blamed for the whole thing and freak out (not unreasonably), so they decide to shut off the transponder and take off with the ship while they try to figure out if they've got anything they can sell themselves. Meanwhile, the original group doesn't know whether the whatsit is still on the ship, the faction thought they had it but now think they've been tricked, the higher-ups are warning everyone that heads are going to roll, and both the intended recipients and the intended heroin buyer have decided they've been swindled and are preparing to send out their own assassination teams.

Hey, I like it - this is comedy gold material! It really needs Ilf and Petrov to write it, not Ken Follett.

50:

This is just to say
that the spam filter ate my post
that is in the queue

and which
I had composed
for your breakfast.

Forgive me
it had theories
so improbable and zany

51:

Clifton, you rock. Thank you.

NB. I am no relation.

52:

A Russian-manned Finnish-owned Maltese-registered ship? Just a regular day on the high seas. I'm leaning towards the idea of some kind of insurance fraud (attempted fraud, as the ship appears to be intact), most likely by the owners of either the vessel or the cargo.

53:

Clifton: I've spent most of the past 24 hours on airliners or in airport lounges with no free wifi. Hint: aside from the robots, I am the only moderator on this blog.

54:

I and my colleagues have put this matter under much scrutiny. We have, as of late, been attempting to track the whereabouts of a certain ship owned by a privatized high-energy research company. Since our discovery of mysterious footage of the vessel stranded in ice, we've begun a backward tracking of the vessels origin.

We are now under the firm belief that this vessel passed through this selfsame area of water before our subsequent discovery of the vessel in the Arctic Circle. The company in question was fond of highly clandestine (and illegal) research pre-facto, so we aren't surprised that a seemingly legitimate ship was run through their Finnish shell company into a disappearing act to preserve the sanctity of their work. I'm going to inform Eli of this news right away. I'm sure Gordon will be up to the job of looking further into this.

(for those who didn't get it; elaborate reference to valve games.)

55:

To add a small coal to the paranoia-fire: southern Africa is the way you go to reach various nefarious states from a European starting point, if you don't want to go via the heavily-watched choke-points of Gibraltar and the Suez Canal.

Heteromeles @44: cargo ships are actually slower than they used to be, on account of the rising cost of fuel. This is why I tell anyone who'll listen that sailing ships could still work...

56:

Charlie, FWIW that was intended as humor, not a complaint. I was figuring it might be quite a while till it showed up as you were traveling so I thought I'd leave a placeholder. Nor is this a complaint; after 24 hours on airplanes and in airports I'd expect you to be feeling a might testy.

57:

Mite, not might. Never mind.

58:

1) Did the masked men who took over on 24-Jul even exist? We don't have any independent corroboration, right? Only the captain's report to his boss?

2) Were the masked men sneaking something on board? It seems unlikely, since it would be cheaper and simpler just to bribe the crew when they were still in port.

3) If the masked men were planning to take something off, it would have to be small enough to fit in their inflatable boat.

4) Who's to say the masked men ever left the ship? They could have left men behind or bought off the crew to take over later. Only the captain would need to be alive to exchange passwords with the owners and authorities.

5) Timber has got to have some of the lowest value density of any shipped products. Any finished or processed goods, foodstuffs, metals, or pretty much anything else would be better to steal. Or does that mean the guilty parties thought it would be easier to sneak the package past customs.

6) What's the flip side of this in Russia? If they're mobilizing their entire Atlantic fleet straight out of Red October, what's happening at home? Have any players in the underworld, Navy, or security services gotten rubbed out in the past 3 weeks?

My latest guess is that they were smuggling women and dope. The raiders were real narcs who confiscated the dope to resell and entertained themselves, then split. Some of the women escaped and hid out until the ship crossed the English Channel, then took over.

59:

Heard on Radio 4 news last night that a ransom demand had been made - although no further details were given.

61:

Last year, when the Somali pirates were actually making the headlines, I saw somebody asking if A. Bertram Chandler was correct in that maritime law allowed a Ship's Captain to own weapons for the protection of the ship and crew.

(Something about neutral ships mounting deck guns without becoming belligerents.)

There was another piracy story about Egyptian fisherman, who decided that they'd had enough of being held to ransom. Used machetes on the pirates, according to one report. Which is OK if you don't happen to have a cutlass.

Times have changed, from the pulp-fiction adventures of mariners in the South China Seas, who have machineguns on the bridge wings and know how to use them.

These days, the average ship's crew either don't know how to use that sort of weaponry. or shouldn't be trusted with it.

On the other hand, when you see the grappling hook on the rail, that's the time to chuck overboard any surplus anvils. Though fighting back against gangsters with guns is something you'd better do right, first time.

62:

@61 Don't know if it still does but it certainly used to. My father was a merchant naval officer for many years. I vividly remember him showing me the guns they kept on board (probably around 1979/80). There were 2 (count 'em ) short-barreled pistols/revolvers (the kind that used to known as 38 special) for an 18-20 man crew. They were kept in a locked safe in the captain's cabin, with a box or two of ammo. Probably only the 1st Officer and the Captain would have had the safe combination. I don't imagine the firearms would have been much use against a determined and heavily armed pirate crew, though if the putative pirates had nothing better than swords and a few old rifles (not unreasonable to expect in the South China Sea in say the 1930s to the 1970s), and probably a not very fast boat, they might have been scared off. My father showed me the weapons on the occasion of his disposing of them. The method of disposal was - chuck them over the side! To be fair it was in the middle of the Atlantic, so they are in several thousand feet of water now. At the time, as I recall, the thinking was that piracy wasn't a serious threat to a reasonably large and relatively fast bulk carrier, and that the guns would be just about useless anyway as no one (British crew) knew anything about using them. Far East/South China Sea was of course traditionally an area of relatively high piracy risk (see Joseph Conrad for fictionalised examples). And yeah, the vessels my father was on were not dissimilar to the "Artic Sea", though a bit bigger I think.

63:

An individual ship is much harder to find, even in our days of satellite surveillance and radar, than most readers of this think.

I'd recommend The Outlaw Sea to Charlie and his readers. You'll get a better sense of how this can happen after you read it.

64:

The good news is the Finnish authorities have officially denied that any nuclear materials were on board:

http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5igg1DzPsNqLdnrnnXWRzMcPifXRA

They did a radiation check just before this voyage, because "Some fireman for some reason thought that there might be some radioactivity involved". But there wasn't.

Thats alright then, nothing to report ?

It just gets fishier by the day, doesn't it?

65:

@64 The Finns - coincidental-like - checked the vessel for radiation? Uh-huh. Nothing suspicious about that, no sir.

Russia has confirmed ship and crew have been, like totally, found. The Defence Minister was cagey about details though, he says they will be able to say more in a couple of hours (presumably after they either beat it out of them or get their story straight, or both)

http://uk.news.yahoo.com/22/20090817/tts-uk-ship-russia-648bc60.html

66:

Similarly the BEEB report that "all is well" but ....

Was this what was inteded from the start?
A Maltese-registered, Finnish-owned, Russian-crewed ship is "recovered", and ALL IS WELL .....
Except that whatever was intended to be done, was done, whilst it was erm, "off the radar".
Or am I just not paranoid enough?

67:

Greg, the Russian-crewed, Finnish-owned, Maltese-registered combo isn't anything special. Most ships are registered to a "flag of convenience" port; i.e. a country with lax environmental and employment laws.

68:

The plot thickens.

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/missing_ship

"They" knew where it was and what it was doing all along, and BTW, the pirates spent more than they would have earned from the cargo running this operation, and they got caught anyway.

I think I'll go back to my first hypothesis: it's August.

Specials

Merchandise

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This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on August 13, 2009 10:55 PM.

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