Ghost ship found with crew missing

By Joe Kovacs

Just days after Hollywood released a horror film entitled “Ghost Ship” in late October, a stranger-than-fiction mystery began that is now haunting authorities Down Under: the discovery of a real-life ghost ship.

Ghost ship loaded with fish, but no crew (photo: Australian Federal Police)

The 65-foot vessel was found adrift off Western Australia Jan. 4 with tons of rotting fish aboard, but without a single crewmember anywhere to be found.

The Australian navy boarded the Taiwanese-registered High Aim 6 last week to find the boat in good sailing condition, with up to three tons of mackerel and tuna in the hold, not to mention personal items such as seven toothbrushes.

The ghost ship reportedly began its voyage on Halloween, with the last known contact on Dec. 13 – ironically, Friday the 13th. Its owners were reached from the Marshall Islands, halfway between Papua New Guinea and Hawaii.

“At this stage we have not located the crew or discovered any plausible reason for their absence,” Bill Graham of the Federal Police told the Australian Associated Press. “The ship itself gives us no evidence of foul play, but our prime concern at this stage is to identify crew members and locate them to determine if they are safe or missing.”

It’s believed the crew consisted of a Taiwanese captain and engineer, and possibly up to a dozen fishermen from Indonesia.

The ship reportedly had fuel and a freezer on board, but most of the fish had spoiled since the engines were stopped and the batteries had died.

Rescuers searched an area of more than 7,000 square nautical miles, but were unable to find any trace of the missing men.

The case has sparked all sorts of speculation among maritime officials, including scenarios involving pirates, mutiny or even the chance of terrorism.

“We believe that there might have been some wrongdoing by the Indonesian crew or that pirates attacked the boat and abducted the fishermen,” Lee Ah-duey, director of the Liu Chiou District Fishing Association in southern Taiwan told the Associated Press.

But Graham with the police was affirming neither the hijack theory nor other scenarios, including the ship being steered toward Australia by autopilot or perhaps a second crew.

“We’re keeping an open mind,” he told AAP. “We don’t believe that the ship actually made landfall in Australia, but at this stage, where they went missing is still a bit of a mystery to us.”

Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock believes the crewmen never made it to the Australian shore, thinking they would have since been spotted.

“Our experience has been that people who land off vessels in [the] northwest of Australia are quickly found,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. “It is more likely that they are in some risk.”

Back in Taiwan, officials are trying to retrace the vessel’s path by examining the mobile phone calls placed from Indonesia. Some 87 calls were reportedly made from Bali alone.

“The two Taiwanese crewmen called their families every day,” Lee told AP. “The last time they called was on Dec. 6.” There was no mention of trouble in the final conversation.

“There’s a lot of strange things associated with this boat,” Geoff Rohan of the Australian Fisheries Management Authority told ABC. “All I can say is what we’ve seen … but I can’t give the answer to what’s actually happened. We don’t know.”