Sea Transportation: Cursed Tanker Drifts Into Infamy


February 28, 2011: After two months of drifting in the Indian Ocean, the tanker Esperanza has been found and is being towed to port. The ship had drifted 800 kilometers, after being abandoned by its crew. But pirates, smugglers, insurance fraud, and much else, were also involved.

It all began last December, when pirates attacked the small (79 meter/245 foot, 1,332 GRT) tanker Esperanza. But the crew disabled the engines, barricaded themselves in a safe room and radioed for help. A U.S. warship came along shortly, and found the pirates gone (leaving only a few bullet holes behind). Unfortunately, the crew was unable to repair the engines, so the American destroyer took the crew to Oman and cut them loose. The owner of the Esperanza was notified. But no one bothered to go get the drifting Esperanza.

Why had it taken so long to get the Esperanza a tow? Well, it seems that the Esperanza was involved in shady business itself. Local fishermen report seeing the Esperanza loading petroleum products from larger tankers (who doctor their records and pocket the money), and then sell it to isolated towns along the coast. The Esperanza has also been spotted making deliveries in Somalia. The Indian owner of the Esperanza denied any knowledge of this, but did not arrange for a tug to go after the Esperanza last December, apparently in the hope that the ship would just sink, and the insurance could be collected. The crew has since disappeared, and no one is really interested in pursuing the case. For one thing, jurisdiction is questionable and hard evidence is lacking. No one, including the crew, owners, rescuers or even the pirates, want to touch this one.

For most of the last two months, the Seychelles coast guard knew roughly where the Esperanza was (as it drifted past the Seychelles), but feared the ship was booby trapped, and saw no pressing need to intervene. The Esperanza was not drifting in any major shipping lanes, although it was, technically, a navigation hazard. Because of that, the Seychelles government eventually summoned a seagoing tug to bring the Esperanza into port. The U.S. Navy is being blamed for not dealing with the Esperanza in the first place, apparently in the hope that the United States will pick up the towing bill. With the Esperanza, there's always another scam just around the corner.


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