In happier times, the MV Lyubov Orlova was a pleasure ship, a cruiser accustomed to taking well-heeled Russian holidaymakers on adventure tours around the Arctic. Today, that same 295ft (90m) ship is bobbing off the coast of Ireland, its only passengers a horde of disease-ridden rats.
The trouble for the ship began last February. Set for the breakers yard, it was being towed from Canada to the Dominican Republic by an American-owned tug. A day into the journey, however, the line between the vessels broke. The tug tried to reconnect it, but was hampered by 60km/h winds. It withdrew and the Orlova was left crewless and adrift.
The Canadian authorities, worried that the ship might collide with its offshore oil wells, sent another, larger boat that caught hold of the stricken vessel. It did not take it to port, however. Instead, it towed the Orlova beyond Canadian waters and let it drift out to sea.
Its lonely journey has now run to 12 months and as many as 2000 nautical miles (3700km). The ship, having crossed the Atlantic, is now supposedly on Ireland’s doorstep.
Unsurprisingly, the Irish Coast Guard is unenthusiastic about the situation. “We don’t want rats from foreign ships coming on to Irish soil,” the director of the Irish maritime agency told the Irish Independent.
There is not a great deal that can be done to prevent the rats from establishing a beachhead, however, as the ship has no location-finding devices on board and no one knows where it is exactly. Gemma Wilkie, a spokesman for the British Chamber of Shipping, points out that the situation is about as uncertain as it gets. “Clearly, the coastguard involved was vigilant in carrying out a search in response to the radar results showing an object of similar size off the Scottish coast – although as yet there has been no confirmed sighting of the ship in UK waters,” she says.
Although the maritime authorities do not welcome such floating hazards, they are relatively sanguine about them. John Murray, the maritime director of the International Chamber of Shipping, says the chance of a collision with another ship is low. “Navigation warnings from other vessels and radar usually ensure they are spotted from quite a distance away. Ships navigate around them.”
Still, the notion of a phantom vessel is discomfiting. The most famous example is the Mary Celeste, the 100ft brigantine found floating, crewless but well-provisioned, in the Atlantic Ocean in 1872. Phantom ships are certainly an eerie spectacle but the chances, for most of us, of ever being visited by a ghost ship are slim to none.