Ireland threatens millions to remove the “ghost ship” from the rocks

The ghost ship that washed on to Ireland’s coast earlier this year remains something of a mystery: its owner has not been found, which could potentially leave the Irish state with a bill of millions for its removal.

Authorities are still trying to trace those who own and are responsible for the MV Alta, a 77-metre cargo vessel that ran aground near Ballycotton, a fishing village in County Cork overlooking the Celtic Sea, in February.

It had traversed the Atlantic for more than a year without crew or passengers and skirted the Americas, Africa and Europe before wedging itself on to rocks during Storm Dennis.

“We’re still trying to establish ownership and that process may take up to a year,” a spokesperson for Ireland’s revenue commissioners, who act as “receiver of wreck”, a statutory function, said on Tuesday.

An individual purporting to represent the owner contacted the agency in February but that ownership claim remains unproven. “We’re still investigating,” said the spokesman.

If no owner is found, the Irish state will face a choice: spend millions of euros removing the vessel or let the elements determine its fate.

The Alta caught the public’s imagination but locals bristle at the prospect of a rusting ruin remaining on their shores, a magnet for curious and in some cases reckless sightseers. Before Covid-19 restrictions there were reports of people boarding the vessel despite warnings that it was dangerous and unstable.

Salvage experts say the Alta has no commercial value and that the Irish state may never track down the owner.

“She’s too old and her scrap value would be low,” Mark Hoddinott, a salvage and wreck removal expert with Brand Marine, told RTE. “Whether the state would want to remove her just because she was an eyesore, I doubt. The cost of removing her would be quite considerable too – €5m-10m or I would say probably a bit higher. Is it really worth it? My own view would be probably not.”

Built in 1976, the Alta was flagged in Tanzania, changed owner in 2017 and was sailing from Greece to Haiti in September 2018 when it became disabled about 1,380 miles (2,220km) south-east of Bermuda.

Unable to make repairs, the 10-strong crew was rescued by the US coastguard and brought to Puerto Rico. The ship was reportedly towed to Guyana and then hijacked, its subsequent fate unclear until August 2019 when a Royal Navy ice patrol ship, HMS Protector, encountered it in the mid-Atlantic, apparently unmanned.