Maritime lore is filled with stories of ghost ships. Whether the ship is a phantom or just prowls the open seas without a crew these have been common as long as humans have sailed the seas. Today it may seem hard to believe but these ghost ships are more common than one would think and some of these pose major threats to the shipping lanes. Enter new technology that can be used to track some of these ghost ships.

The Lyubov Orlova

The most prominent ghost ship in recent memory is the Lyubov Orlova, a Russian cruise ship (named for the first truly famous Russian actress) that was on its way to be scrapped but was cut loose while being towed from Canada. The ship, which was built in Yugoslavia in 1976, was being towed to the Dominican Republic to be scrapped in 2013 when its towing cable snapped in rough seas the day after putting to sea. The ship was used to take tourists to the Arctic but was seized from its owner in an issue stemming to a payment dispute between the owner and the charter company. The ship was essentially abandoned along with its crew (which had not been paid for 5 months) in Canada in 2010. The crew had to rely on food donations from Canadian citizens before finally returning to Russia.

After being cut loose it was believed that ocean currents were pushing the ship towards Iceland, Ireland or the United Kingdom. Various coast guards have been on the lookout for any sign of the vessel and they are aided by the thousands of ships that use the shipping lanes between Europe and North America.

Dangers of a ghost ship

The danger is not necessarily a danger to the ships as modern sonar should prevent a collision. It is the occupants of the Orlova, potentially hundreds or thousands of diseased and cannibalistic rats. The ship is unpowered so it has no GPS unit or warning lights and does present a small collision danger. There are also other environmental issues like toxic liquids like mercury in the ship as well as asbestos should it sink or run aground. The Orlova does have an emergency position-indicating beacon (EIPRB) on board. Canada has disavowed any claim of the vessel making it essentially Ireland’s problem to deal with.

Tracking the ship

The Orlova was spotted by a supply ship which attached a tow line to it but the captain was ordered to release the ship as it was in international waters and set adrift again. Canadian officials decided that the ship no longer posed a threat to offshore oil rigs or the environment. The ship was spotted again about 1,300 miles west of Ireland by a US National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency ship less than a month later. This sighting made the ship headline news in Ireland. Soon after te Irish Coast Guard received an EIPRB signal in March 2013 about 700 miles from the Irish Coast and that was the last time that the ship was heard from. It is believed that the ship was sinking as the EIPRB is activated when it comes into contact with water. That did not stop British tabloids from fear mongering about man eating cannibal rats.

Technology to the rescure

If the Orlova has not sunk it posed a major hazard for Ireland which forced the Irish Coast Guard to develop new computer modeling systems and satellite data to figure out just where the ship could be. If it is still afloat the last thing that they want is the ship to appear out of the fog and collide with a fishing vessel or a tanker leaving a harbor. The computer modeling, which takes into account ocean currents and winds placed the Orlova potentially between Ireland and the Faroe Islands in 2014 but there was no sign of the vessel, which seems to confirm the belief that the ship has indeed sunk or run aground in Greenland.

The new system that was developed was called Global Maritime Awareness. It was developed by the Irish Coast Guard and marine surveillance expert Guy Thomas. It works with the world’s four best satellite tracking technologies to create a new maritime monitoring system that would cover the entire world with the systems working in tandem. In this case it would take data transmitted from the Automatic Identification System and then using satellite imagery to find ships that are not transmitting thus potentially identifying any ghost ships well before they enter shipping lanes or threaten a busy harbor. As with most technological advancements it takes existing technologies and combines them to form a better product and as always necessity is the mother of invention.

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