It Was Bound for Haiti, Turned Into a Ghost Ship

'Wired' takes a look at the MV Alta
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 1, 2020 12:06 PM CDT
Tracking the Strange 18-Month Journey of a Ghost Ship
This undated image released Feb. 17, 2020, shows the abandoned cargo ship MV Alta, which washed up on the coast of County Cork, Ireland.   (Irish Coast Guard via AP)

The MV Alta washed up on an Irish shore in February after some 18 months adrift at sea. In a piece for Wired, Matt Burgess explains that the category of people to have seen the ghost ship over that time is a remarkably narrow one: "It was only spotted once," he writes, somehow bypassing main shipping routes and obstacles "by chance." Using data from the ship's Automatic Identification System (AIS) transponders, Burgess traces some of its voyage to Ireland. Before it became a ghost ship, there was weird behavior: Its name was changed four times in five years, which Georgios Hatzimanolis, an analyst at ship tracking site MarineTraffic, says is abnormal. Ditto the fact that its AIS was turned off then back on at times; once it was off for 18 months.

In late 2017 and much of 2018—still not a ghost ship yet—the Alta sailed to various Greek ports. "Then something strange happened," writes Burgess. In September 2018, its AIS data places it at the port of Ceuta, a Spanish territory on mainland Africa near Morocco. It left there with men aboard, bound for Haiti, but the shore it reached next was that Irish one. While crossing the Atlantic, it suddenly slowed to a near stop, traveling at most 0.2 miles per hour. Then the speed picked up a bit, with another maritime expert saying the movements indicated it was either being towed or trying to move on its own. In October, a US Coast Guard ship reportedly removed its 10 crew members some 1,300 miles southeast of Bermuda; 95 oil barrels remained aboard. The idea was that its owners would retrieve the ship. They obviously didn't. (Read the full story for much more, including who spotted the ship that one time.)

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