When A Mysterious Ghost Ship Ran Aground Off Burma, The Abandoned Vessel Left Authorities Baffled

Fishermen first spotted the hulk of a looming cargo ship on the evening of August 28, 2018. Drifting off the coast of southern Myanmar, once known as Burma, the mysterious vessel appeared to have strayed from local freight lanes. In fact, it was an abandoned ship – a ghost ship – and it would soon run aground…

Ghost ships wash up on the shores of Asia with disturbing regularity. In 2017, for example, around 100 empty ships were found drifting off the coast of Japan, the most since records began in 2011. The vessels came from North Korea and they were usually empty, but not always. Indeed, in November of that year, authorities discovered that one North Korean ghost ship contained eight human skeletons.

But those ghost ships tend to be fishing vessels without able crews, strong engines, GPS or adequate food supplies. Abandoned freighters, however, are a much rarer sight in Asian waters. In fact, the gigantic ship heading toward the shores of Myanmar was the first abandoned boat of any kind to have arrived in the country.

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The fishermen, of course, told authorities about the unusual vessel. In response, they scrambled a team of navy, police and coast guard personnel. The team kept watch on the ship. But nobody spotted a crew. And over the next few days, it drifted straight towards the shore.

On August 30, 2018, the ship ran aground in Thongwa – a coastal settlement on the southeast fringe of Yangon Region. Located in Lower Myanmar, this area is home to the bustling city of Yangon, which was the nation’s capital until 2006, when it was moved to Naypyidaw.

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The ship was vast and eerie. Beached on a sand bar in shallow waters, it was a strange and confusing sight. No one knew where it had come from, who owned it or how it had ended up in Myanmar. In fact, no one knew anything about the abandoned freighter. It had simply just arrived.

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The authorities decided it was time to have a look around the ship. They then dispatched a team of police officers, military and navy personnel to handle the task. However, the team could find nothing. “No crew or cargo was found on the ship,” U New Win Yangon, a member of parliament for Thongwa, told The Myanmar Times newspaper. “[It is] quite puzzling how such a big ship turned up in our waters.”

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Indeed, one of the most puzzling aspects of the situation was the condition of the vessel. Although its hull had broken in two after running aground, the ship was otherwise seaworthy. At least, that’s what general secretary of the Independent Federation of Myanmar Seafarers, U Aung Kyaw Linn said. “In my opinion, the ship was recently abandoned,” he told the The Myanmar Times. “There must be a reason [why it was abandoned].”

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But why would anyone abandon such a large and expensive vessel? One possible reason is mutiny. In December 2002, for example, the ship MV High Aim 6 was completely abandoned somewhere between Hawaii and Papua New Guinea. After its recovery just under 100 miles off the northeastern Australian coast, the Taiwanese authorities came to the conclusion that the crew had rebelled.

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Another possible reason for ghost ships is piracy. In 2017, for example, pirates seized an Indian commercial vessel in Somalian waters. Rather than steal the ship, though, they kidnapped its 11 crew members and held them to ransom. Could a similar scenario have caused the mystery ship to wash up in Myanmar?

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The ship in question is the Sam Ratulangi PB 1600. And according to the global shipping website Marine Traffic, it was constructed in 2001. The vessel measures more than 580 feet in length and weighs over 29,000 tons. Its status is listed as “decommissioned or lost.”

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The ship appears to have been named after an Indonesian cultural and political hero. Indeed, it was sailing under the Indonesian flag when last seen. It’s last position, according to Marine Traffic, was the South China Sea, just off the coast of Taiwan. But that was way back in 2009.

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So what was the Sam Ratulangi doing at sea after an apparent hiatus of nine years? The authorities, after discovering a major clue, announced their theory on Facebook. “The ship could have been towed by another ship,” they wrote, explaining that two broken cables “were found at its head.”

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Indeed, according to the navy’s official radar information, on August 26-27 two vessels appeared traverse the Yangon and Sittaung rivers. In fact both waterways feed into the waters around southern Myanmar. On that basis, they conducted a search of the region. And about 50 miles from Yangon, they located a tugboat called Independence.

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Independence was carrying 13 sailors from Indonesia. And of course, they knew what had happened to the Sam Ratulangi. Bound for a ship-breaking yard in Bangladesh, they had set sail on August 13, 2018, from Jakarta with the ship in tow. But then they encountered inclement weather.

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“[The crew] faced bad weather when they arrived south of Yangon River,” the navy is quoted as saying on news website metro.co.uk. “The cables attached to the ship broke. The ship was floating along with the tide and it was difficult to continue its journey.” And so the sailors abandoned it.

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The ship’s intended destination, Chittagong, is the heart of Bangladesh’s boat-salvaging industry. Hundreds of out-of-service vessels pass through the port each year. Weak regulation and low labor costs are a big draw for international shipowners. In fact, ship-breaking facilities in the United States simply cannot compete with those in Chittagong.

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However, the industry in Bangladesh is highly controversial. On the one hand, ship-breaking provides poor Bangladeshis with a steady source of income. On the other, life in the salvage yards can be hard and treacherous. In fact, due to lax safety regulations, many workers have died or received major injuries in accidents.

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Meanwhile, Muhammad Iqbal, from the Indonesian Department of Citizen’s Protection, made clear that the scrapping of Sam Ratulangi was a job for private and foreign-led companies. “It has nothing to do with the Government,” he told Australia’s ABC news. “It was towed to Bangladesh for scraps by a tug with a Singaporean flag.”

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Iqbal added that Myanmar’s government “will find a way to help” the Indonesian sailors. However, what will happen to the ship is not clear. Since it is now in two pieces, it cannot sail. And with no ship-salvaging facilities in the local area, there is no way to break it down. Most likely it will remain in place, slowly decaying over the years, until finally, perhaps centuries from now, the seas reclaim it.

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