Storm Dennis: 'Ghost ship' washes up on Irish coast

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image source, Irish Coast Guard/PA
image captionThe 80-metre cargo ship Alta was last seen thousands of miles away in 2019

A "ghost" cargo ship has washed up off the coast of County Cork, Ireland, brought in by the bad weather that lashed Europe in Storm Dennis.

The abandoned boat was spotted on the rocks of fishing village Ballycotton by a passerby.

The vessel appears to have drifted thousands of miles over more than a year, from the south-east of Bermuda in 2018, across the Atlantic Ocean.

"This is one in a million," said local lifeboat chief John Tattan.

The head of Ballycotton's Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) told the Irish Examiner newspaper he had "never, ever seen anything abandoned like that before."

So what's the story behind this mysterious ship without a crew?

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The ship has been identified as the Alta, which has had numerous owners and names. Built in 1976, it most recently flew a Tanzanian flag.

Various authorities had become aware of its aimless drift around the world. It was last spotted in September 2019 by a British Royal Navy ship.

The saga that brought it to Ireland began in September 2018 when it was still crewed, and sailing from Greece to Haiti.

Unidentified problems on board led to a power outage and the Alta drifted at sea for 20 days around 1,300 miles (2,100km) south-east of Bermuda, according to the US Coast Guard, which became aware of its struggles.

With just two days of food left on board for Alta's crew, the coast guard air-dropped food and other supplies.

As a hurricane approached, the coast guard decided to rescue the damaged ship's 10 crew members and take them to Puerto Rico.

image source, Getty Images
image captionCounty Cork, Ireland, where the ship ended up

"M/V [Motor Vessel] Alta remains adrift to the southeast of Bermuda as salvage attempts by owners continue," a Bermuda Maritime Operations Centre spokesperson said at the time.

What happened next?

Partly damaged and without a crew, the Alta was left to drift.

Then, one year later, in September 2019, the Royal Navy ice patrol ship HMS Protector spotted it in the mid-Atlantic.

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"Efforts may continue to recover her, but her future lies in the hands of others," HMS Protector tweeted, having ascertained that there were no crew on board.

Who is responsible for ghost ships?

Normally, damaged or sunken ships remain the property of their owners, who are responsible for securing a solution, the director of coastal operations for the Commissioners of Irish Lights, Robert McCabe, told BBC News.

image source, Getty Images
image captionAlta was abandoned in October 2018 around 1,300 miles south-east of Bermuda

However, if such a vessel is deemed a danger to shipping, local authorities might make efforts to tow it away.

"They've had a number of incidents in the Irish Sea like that - if there is no owner, the Commissioners of Irish Lights get involved," said Mr McCabe.

"To have a ship drifting around like that for 18 months is not common," he added. "For it to have been spotted just once since October 2018 just shows how vast the ocean is."

He said recent poor weather may have meant fewer ships were at sea and in a position to have noticed it.

What might happen next?

There is no visible pollution leaking from the ship, according to environmental scientists who visited Ballycotton on Monday, explained Cork County Council.

Cork County Council, the Irish Coastguard and the Receiver of Wreck will decide what will happen to the ship, but Mr McCabe suggests that salvaging it would be expensive.

And there are still puzzles in the Alta's story that remains to be solved: who is its owner? And what was the cargo on board at the time it was abandoned? Answers may only be forthcoming once a decision on what to do with the Alta is reached.

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