Where are you, Arctic Sea?
By Tommi Nieminen
It simply does not make sense.
A 98-metre-long cargo ship, the M/S Arctic Sea, is reported to have been hijacked off the coast of Sweden, after which it is sighted again in the English Channel, and then it disappears without a trace.
Nevertheless, this is what has happened, in the age of satellites and radar systems, and in the waters of the European Union.
On July 20th, the Arctic Sea was anchored in the harbour of Pietarsaari on the West Coast of Finland. Three days later, in the early hours of the morning, it left with a load of 6,700 cubic metres of Stora Enso sawn timber toward Bejaïa in Algeria. Customs authorities in Pietarsaari say that nothing out of the ordinary had occurred while the ship was in port.
Three days later, the voyage of the Arctic Sea suddenly stopped off the coast of Sweden, between the islands of Öland and Gotland.
This is the version of the 15-man crew of the Arctic Sea of what happened then: The ship was in the area between Gotland and Öland at three in the morning on July 24th. Under cover of darkness, a rubber boat approached the ship, with the word Polis painted on the side. Between 8 and 10 hooded figures boarded the ship. They clubbed and tied up the night watchman and an engineer who had been on night shift. The hijackers, who claimed to be drug police, spoke English with an accent. They damaged the ship’s communications equipment, collected the mobile phones of the crew members, beat people, and searched for something.
After 12 hours, the hijackers left the ship, taking nothing with them. Their rubber boat curved away to the east.
Normally in a situation like that a sea captain would head for a nearby harbour in Sweden or Denmark; it is unlikely that getting Stora Enso’s lumber to Algeria was so very urgent.
However, the Arctic Sea simply continued on its way toward Africa.
“The fact that they did not go to port with their broken radios suggests that not everything was on the up-and-up”, says Kari Larjo, an experienced sea captain. “Nobody wants to sail without a radio."
Larjo has all kinds of ideas of what might have happened.
“Maybe this might have been a small-scale altercation among criminals, and nobody wanted to have anything to do with the authorities”, Larjo ponders. “Criminal activity is certainly possible without the shipping line knowing anything about it. It would be a very big matter if the shipping line itself were involved in a crime.”
Ships the size of the Arctic Sea are required to have Automatic Identification System (AIS) signaling equipment, which makes it possible to follow the course of a ship even on a home computer.
The last time that the Arctic Sea was located with the help of AIS was on July 29th, which means that the equipment was working at least five days after the alleged hijacking - contrary to what the shipping company suggested.
The first news that emerged about the hijacking of the Arctic Sea was on the following evening - July 30th, both in Sweden and in Finland.
Since then, there has been no word from the ship. It is likely that the AIS device has been switched off. However, this would be a gross violation of international maritime rules.
The Arctic Sea is of interest to Finns, as it is carrying 6,700 cubic metres of Stora Enso lumber to Algeria. This is awkward, and also a considerable blow for Stora.
Kari Naumanen, who is responsible for Stora Enso’s wood exports to Algeria, says that the average price of the lumber on board the Arctic Sea is about EUR 200 per cubic metre, which adds up to EUR 1.3 million.
“Unfortunately, we have no knowledge of the ship”, Naumanen says, adding: “And the recipient of the lumber in Algeria is undoubtedly interested, considering that the goods have not arrived."
Stora Enso has approached Victor Matvejev, CEO of Solchart Management, which is responsible for the ship and its cargo. So far it has been to no avail. Both the ship and Stora Enso’s lumber have vanished. This is most unusual in today’s Europe.
"Previously, this shipping line has always taken care of its business. Now there is no information at all. Naturally, plenty of wild theories develop”, Naumanen says, without going into specifics.
“We are waiting for the shipping line to give us more information. We still believe that the cargo will reach Algeria”, Naumanen says.
It is unlikely that hijackers, if there are any hijackers on the Arctic Sea - would be interested in lumber. Hijacking a massive cargo of wood would be a rather absurd thing to do. Who would buy it? There must have been something else on board the ship that someone was interested in.
From the end of last year through May this year it has sailed between Kotka on Finland’s south coast and the port of Oran in Algeria, carrying lumber from Finland. Then its Finnish harbour appears to have been moved from Kotka to Pietarsaari.
“A completely normal cargo ship, and a fully competent Russian crew”, says Markku Koskinen, head of traffic at the Port of Kotka. “I cannot understand what is going on.”
The forwarding agent for the Arctic Sea in the Port of Kotka is a Finnish company called Aug. Ljungqvist, but its representative Jouni Setälä knows nothing about the case.
“I don’t even know who ultimately owns the shp. We are in contact with Solchart, and with nobody else”, Setälä says.
A month before the hijacking, on June 24th, the ship was in Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave on the Baltic Sea located between Poland and Lithuania. What could it have been doing there, considering that it normally operates between Finland and Algeria?
“The ship was undergoing repairs at the Pregol shipyard in Kaliningrad”, says Denis Melnikov, an official at the Port of Kaliningrad.
Contact information for the Pregol shipyard is found, but nobody at the other end answered the phone.
It would not have been completely unheard of for someone in Kaliningrad to have hidden something on the ship; ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the area has become famous as a smuggling route for drugs and cigarettes, among other things.
Figuring out the ownership and management arrangements of the Arctic Sea is no simple matter, as they involve several different countries.
At first it was referred to as a Finnish ship, but that proved not to be the case. Then it was said that it was under Latvian ownership, but that also would seem to be erroneous, although until last year, the Latvian company Aquaship was responsible for the ship’s deliveries.
The vessel is registered in Malta, under the name of a Russian-owned company called Arctic Sea. Its website is in Russian, but its telephone number is answered by a person by the name of Paul Borello in Malta. He says that he is not at liberty to speak about matters related to the company. He promises to send an e-mail to the company’s management, but no word comes from there, naturally.
The ship’s security is handled by a Russian company Solchart Arkhangelsk, which has an address in Arkhangelsk. The company’s director Nikolai Karpenkov answers the telephone.
“Why don’t you ask these things in Finland?”
A representative of the ship in Finland advised us to turn to your company, because you are responsible for the ship’s security.
“That’s not exactly the way it is.”
That is all that Karpenkov will say.
Cargo handling in Finland is handled by Solchart Management, which has offices in the most expensive possible place in Finland - the district of Eira in Helsinki. The office is almost bare - a table, three chairs, a computer, and a safe, on which a large ship’s rudder is leaning. On the wall there are two paintings with maritime subjects and a sea map. Solchart Management was registered under that name in June. CEO Victor Matvejev answers the telephone.
“I am not in a position to say anything.” Beep, beep, beep....
Also listed as a person in charge of Solchart Management is Aleksei Starodubov, who says that he does not know where the ship or Matvejev might be. Soon Matvejev stops answering his phone.
“This appears to be a most extraordinary chain. No reliable information is available”, says Tuomas Routa, head of maritime security at the Finnish Maritime Administration. “Sailing out there in a ship without a radio. It sounds very strange.”
The expected time of arrival of the Arctic Sea in Bejaïa was early Wednesday morning, August 5th, at 1:00 AM Finnish time. On Wednesday morning Rjad Hadjal, harbourmaster at the Port of Bejaïa, answers the phone.
“The Arctic Sea has not arrived in Bejaïa. Our radio officer has tried to make contact with the ship, but has not succeeded.”
“Perhaps it will come in the afternoon. You can call again at that time.”
The ship had not shown up by Thursday afternoon, but Hadjal had heard a rumour that it might be “somewhere near the Spanish coast”.
There is no news on Friday, either. The ship is probably not even in the Mediterranean, as the Tarifa guard station in the Strait of Gibraltar has not seen it. The Spanish Coast Guard has said that it would immediately report to the police if the ship is located.
In Algeria, the ship’s cargo is handled by a company called Seacom. It’s contact person Sadaoui Mustapha has no idea what happened to the ship.
“What has happened to it?” Mustapha asks.
If I knew, I would say.
Also at a loss for answers is Noel Choon, director of the international anti-piracy organisation Piracy Reporting Centre.
“We must contact the ship’s captain”, Choong says. “Call again tomorrow.”
Well, did you make contact?
“No. We know absolutely nothing about this.”
It looks like a dead end. The Swedish police have had about as much success in investigating the case as they had with the murder of Prime Minister Olof Palme some years ago.
Or then, it is withholding some information for investigative reasons. So as the police are not saying anything, we can only speculate.
Perhaps the Arctic Sea is still hijacked. It might explain the complete silence on the part of the shipping company in the matter. By remaining silent, they could be protecting the Russian crew, while negotiations on a ransom for the men and for the cargo.
Might some of the members of the crew be in on the plot? But if the ship is still hijacked, where could it be going to? Perhaps far into the open sea in the Atlantic, from where the hijackers might escape with a valuable load. Perhaps.
Swedish security expert Tryggve Ahlman said in an interview with the Helsinki-based Swedish-language newspaper Hufvudstadsbladet that it is no small matter to acquire a rubber boat that can be used in hijacking a cargo ship. Nor is it easy to arm ten criminals with pistols and automatic weapons.
On the other hand, the suggestion that professional hijackers would have boarded the wrong ship suggests a lack of professional skill on the part of the criminals. And who would do something like that along the Swedish coast?
Or might the Swedish police have been the hijackers, as the crew suspected? A Russian journalist of Komsomolskaya Pravda speculated that it might have been Swedish revenge for the Battle of Pultava, where Russian Tsar Peter the Great humiliated the Swedish King Charles XII. When did that battle take place?
It must have been 1709.
Now we are really lost. Please answer our call soon, Arctic Sea.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 9.8.2009
Previously in HS International Edition:
Location of "hijacked" Arctic Sea freighter a mystery (7.8.2009)
Press report: Swedish police see ship hijacking as “mistake” (3.8.2009)
Swedish police silent on ship hijacking investigation (4.8.2009)
Stora Enso has EUR 1.3 million worth of timber in missing ship Arctic Sea (10.8.2009)
Freight vessel of Finnish shipping line targeted by mystery pirates in Swedish waters (31.7.2009)
TOMMI NIEMINEN / Helsingin Sanomat