The mystery of the tanker Kerala

There may be new developments in international shipping, but cargo theft isn’t one of them. With cargoes often worth 10 times (or more) than the value of the vessels carrying them, clever maritime thieves have plenty of reasons to ignore the ship and go for the cargo. After all, ships have registrations and IMO numbers, but most cargo is anonymous by nature. Once offloaded, these cargoes can join the stream of commerce without further fear of discovery.

So the “hijacking” of the Liberian-flagged, 75,000-ton oil tanker Kerala in Angolan waters on January 18, and the pirates’ reported abandonment of the vessel after pumping off its cargo of $56 million in diesel fuel, is more noteworthy in its audacity than in its novelty.

According to the news journal The Atlantic, the vessel disappeared from Angolan waters with 60,000 metric tons of diesel and a 27-person crew, then reappeared off the coast of Nigeria eight days later with the Indian and Filipino crew intact, but sans cargo. The vessel’s Greek owner, Dynacom Tankers Management, promptly issued a press release through the Liberian Registry claiming that the vessel had been seized by pirates and the cargo had been stolen in Nigerian waters by “ship-to-ship transfers.”

Angola, mindful of its law-abiding reputation, immediately countered with an allegation by the head of its coast guard, Capt. Augusto Alfredo, that the crew had deliberately turned off the vessel’s AIS (Automatic Identification System) and had spirited it to Nigeria. “It was all faked, there have been no acts of piracy in Angolan waters,” Capt. Alfredo told The Atlantic. Stung to the quick, a Dynacom executive retorted, according to the website AFP.com, “Angola is trying to cover up how a loaded vessel was taken in an area under its protection.”

Pirate attacks on the west coast of Africa have, so far, been confined to the Gulf of Guinea. If the vessel were hijacked in Angolan waters, this would be the farthest south pirates have managed to operate. If true, this expansion of the threat of piracy would have wide-ranging consequences for vessel owners, cargo interests, and insurers. So there will certainly be an investigation, and interviewing 27 crewpersons separately would ferret out the truth soon enough. Unless, of course, the owner manages to get them off the vessel and dispersed before they can be grilled. After 20 years in marine investigations, I can testify that trying to track down an Indian or Filipino crewperson in his home country who doesn’t want to be found can be an exercise in futility.

It’s too early to cast aspersions, but the Dynacom press release raises more questions than it answers, and the shipping community may be forgiven for taking a jaundiced view of the matter. Greek ship-owners have been pulling fast ones on charterers, shippers, and other maritime interests for over 4,000 years.

The press release claims that the pirates managed to steal the cargo by three separate ship-to-ship transfers in fewer than five days, a respectable production rate under the circumstances. If so, they might as well give up piracy and become stevedores — or ship owners.

 

About the author

Capt. Max Hardberger

Max Hardberger is a maritime attorney, flight instructor, writer, and maritime repo man. He has been a correspondent for WorkBoat since 1995. His memoir, Seized: A Sea Captain’s Adventures Battling Scoundrels and Pirates While Recovering Stolen Ships in the World’s Most Troubled Waters, was published by Broadway Books in 2010. He’s appeared on FOX, The Learning Channel, National Public Radio and the BBC, and has been the subject of articles in Fairplay Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, Men’s Journal, Esquire (UK), and the London Sunday Guardian.

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