The Mysterious Final Journey of MV Alta

MV Alta is a cargo ship that is (at the time of writing in December 2021) wrecked on rocks off the coast of County Cork in the Republic of Ireland. Mystery surrounds much of the history of the Alta and its exact whereabouts for the eighteen months before it ran aground off the coast of Ireland are unknown. The vessel has been abandoned by its owners – who have never been identified – and the Irish authorities are now responsible for the vessel. Due to many unknown factors regarding its ownership and fate, the Alta has become a famous example of a ghost ship.

MV Alta
MV Alta wrecked on rocks off the coast of Ballycotton, County Cork.

The Alta was built in Hommelvik, Norway at the Tronderverftet shipyard as a general cargo ship and was originally named the MV Tananger. It was 77 metres (252 ft) long, displaced 2,295 tonnes and had a maximum speed of around seven knots. The ownership of the vessel changed multiple times over the decades with the Alta being registered in Norway, Greece, Panama and Tanzania. Its name was also changed numerous times only becoming the MV Alta in 2017. Exactly who owned the Alta from 2017 onwards, and its port of registry, remains uncertain.

The final journey of the Alta began in September 2018 when the vessel set off from Greece with the intention of sailing through the Mediterranean and then across the Atlantic to Haiti. Marine analysts quoted in the Irish Times called this 5,000-mile journey “ambitious” as ships of the class of the Alta were primarily designed for “near continental trade” which consisted of shorter voyages in the relatively sheltered waters of the Mediterranean or Persian Gulf (1). By October 2018 the Alta was at an unknown point in the Atlantic Ocean when it suffered engine failure. Unable to repair the engines, the crew of Honduran, Panamanian and Greek nationals remained onboard the vessel as it drifted helplessly. Eventually, with their supplies of food and water running low the Alta was spotted by the USCG cutter Confidence around 1,350 miles (2,200km) southeast of Bermuda. A USCG C-130 Hercules took off from Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City in South Carolina and air-dropped food and water to the crew of the Alta, and plans were made to use tugboats to tow the ship to either Bermuda or Puerto Rico. However, with Tropical Storm Leslie closing in on the area, the plan to recover the ship was abandoned and the crew were instead rescued by the US Coast Guard (2).

Map
The final journey of the MV Alta. The Alta began in Greece (1) and sailed across the Mediterrenean. It then lost power (2) in the Atlantic and the crew were rescued near to Bermuda (3). The vessel may then have been hijacked and towed towards Guyana (grey line to 4), and was then released to drift across the Atlantic (5), until it reached Ballycotton in Ireland (6).

The crewless Alta was now a ghost ship and continued to drift across the Atlantic Ocean for the next eighteen months. While attempts were made to identify the owners of the Alta there are no reports of any company or individuals coming forward to claim ownership of the vessel. An unverified report on the website Marine Bulletin stated that a salvage attempt was made, and the Alta was in the process of being towed to Guyana when it was hijacked by pirates and then abandoned at sea for a second time (3), although this cannot be confirmed. It appears that as the Alta drifted, covering around four nautical miles per day (1), it remained clear of any major shipping routes and was not spotted (or at least not reported) by any other vessels. The only confirmed sighting of the Alta came in late August or early September 2019 when the Royal Navy Ice Patrol Ship HMS Protector was sailing to the Bahamas to take part in disaster relief efforts. At an undisclosed location in the mid-Atlantic, the crew of HMS Protector spotted the Alta and closed in and attempted to make radio contact (4). Being met with no reply, HMS Protector proceeded on her journey and the Alta continued to drift along the Atlantic.

HMS Protector
HMS Protector photographed in the Arctic in 2012.

Approximately six months after its encounter with HMS Protector the Alta had drifted towards Europe. By early February 2020 the Alta was approaching Irish territorial waters when Storm Dennis struck and pushed the ship onto rocks of the coast of Ballycotton, a small village in County Cork, in mid-February 2020. Cork County Council issued a statement in which they said that they would monitor the vessel for oil spillage or any other risks which could be caused by the cargo it was carrying. They also warned people to stay away from the wreck, stating that the ship was located on a dangerous stretch of coastline and the vessel itself was unstable and in a hazardous condition (5).

With the owners of the Alta remaining unknown, the responsibility for the wreck fell to the Irish authorities. An assessment was carried out and a contractor was brought in to airlift ninety barrels of oil from the Alta. A system of booms was also set up around the area to collect any additional oil or fuel which may have leaked out into the sea (6). In the months that followed the Alta remained on the rocks off the coast of Ballycotton, becoming a tourist attraction as people came to the area to view the wreck from land and sea. Reports also emerged that people were boarding the wreck of the Alta to explore the interior of the vessel (7), despite Cork County Council continuing to warn that such actions were extremely dangerous.

MV Alta 2
As of December 2021 the Alta remains off the coast of Ballycotton.

One year on and the wreck remained in place. Plans to refloat the vessel and either tow it to port to be scrapped or move it into deeper water where it could be sunk were ruled out when the cost of doing so was calculated to be upwards of €10 million (8). The Alta, therefore, remained on the rocks in the location where it had first become grounded. Despite the worldwide publicity which the Alta had generated the owners of the vessel had still not been identified, and with maritime law stating that they would be responsible for the cost of recovery it was unlikely that anyone would now come forward and claim ownership of the ship.

In April 2021, fourteen months after the Alta was wrecked, a fire broke out on the vessel and engulfed the bridge area. Firefighters from Cork managed to extinguish the blaze which had severely damaged much of the vessel. The cause of the fire has never been established, but Irish newspapers reported that it was likely to be a case of arson (9). Following this Senator Tim Lombard criticised the Irish government, stating that there had been “very little, if any, progress” in removing the Alta, and said that Ireland needed strengthened legislation and greater financial support to deal with wrecked ships (10).

At the time of writing [December 2021], the Alta remains in the same location where it was originally grounded. The condition of the vessel continues to deteriorate with the fire exacerbating the damage caused by the sea and wind. It appears that the Irish authorities are simply going to leave the Alta in its current position until it slowly breaks apart, a process which could take many years.

References:

  1. Hilliard, M., MV Alta: The unmanned voyage of the Ballycotton ‘ghost ship’, The Irish Times, Feb 21st 2020.
  2. From Bermuda to Ballycotton: The long and lonely Atlantic journey of ‘ghost ship’ the MV Alta, TheJournal.ie, Feb 17th 2020.
  3. Voytenko, M., The mystery of cargo ship found in the Atlantic a year after she was abandoned, Sep 4th 2019.
  4. HMS Protector Twitter Account.
  5. Cork County Council, Grounding of a cargo ship in Ballycotton, Feb 16th 2020.
  6. Roche, B., Oil barrels removed from ‘ghost ship’ stranded on Cork coast, The Irish Times, Feb 26th 2020.
  7. Parker, C., Inside MV Alta: The ghost cargo ship which lies on the rocks in Ballycotton, Irish Examiner, 21st Feb 2020.
  8. O’Sullivan, J., MV Alta could cost €10m to salvage, May 4th 2020, RTE.
  9. Gardaí launch investigation into cause of fire on MV Alta ‘ghost ship’, TheJournal.ie, Apr 30th 2020.
  10. Hoare, P., Senator claims ‘very little, if any’ progress in removing abandoned MV Alta, Irish Examiner, 30th May 2021.