Having just waved farewell to their recent charter clients in Turkey, Captain George Curtoys and First Mate / Cook / Stewardess, Harriet Dubey were taking SY Aenea, a lovely CNB76, 23 metre sail yacht past the southern tip of Greece. On a beautiful calm September day, they were heading to Sicily to pick up their next guests. Having motored across -since there was literally no wind- they stopped to have a swim. They were in the international water border zone between Italy and Greece. The weather was amazing, and the conditions were just perfect, with the water completely flat and still as a millpond.
After a refreshing dip, they wanted to get moving again. It was then that they noticed a boat in the distance, right in the direction where they headed for. They assumed it was underway and moving. An hour later, it was still directly in front of them, and it was definitely not moving. The autopilot had them heading straight for it! They were now 150 miles from land… It was an eerie situation… Cautiously approaching and then circling the seemingly abandoned vessel; they tried to receive a sign of life via the VHF. To no avail. Then they wolf-whistled a few times but received no response… As they got closer, they saw a school of fish gathered underneath the blue hull. It looked like any other family cruising yacht. They noticed the sails were properly stowed away and the all lines were coiled and tidied up.
George: “I started to think that maybe some poor old boy had died or had a heart attack or stroke and the boat was just drifting around. So we stopped our boat, and I swam over to it, feeling a bit anxious about what I might find. Would there be a dead body or maybe someone crazy on board? As I neared the boat, there was a really heavy, awful smell……”
With Harriet nervously observing from Aenea, she saw George reach the back of the spooky cruiser and gingerly look over the edge, where he saw a lot of rubbish, clothes, and mattresses.
George: “Once I got on board, I didn’t immediately go inside, but went around the top and looked through all the windows to see if there was any movement inside. It was pretty gross and all the toilets were a bit like the film, Trainspotting! There were about a hundred bottles of urine dotted around the place. The occupants had all been eating Nutella, and it was difficult to tell whether it was this or faeces on the beds and other surfaces!”
George’s immediate thought was that it might have been a migrant boat, although Harriet didn’t think it seemed like the kind of vessel you would immediately associate with migrants. But as they started to realise that so many of the clothes were women’s and children’s, it was looking very much like it. They uncovered bags with notepads, headphones, and other personal effects, and it felt as though everyone had left in a hurry. Then they then found a wallet with an ID card belonging to a young Afghan lad aged just 21 years old. This pretty much confirmed the refugee theory.
Life jackets inside the boat and the life raft on the side looked ready to be deployed. George and Harriet also observed that the port side of the boat looked as though it had taken a hit from a larger vessel. The guard rail had been cut and there was a dent in the cap rail. It seemed as if a boat had maybe pulled up alongside and taken everybody off… At least, that is what George and Harriet hoped!
George: “It was an Ocean Star 51, almost identical to a 2000 Beneteau. It could berth 10 people, had 4 heads and was a nice-looking boat. It had a dark hull, white top and dark blue sails and looked like a typical Beneteau fibreglass construction yacht.”
George and Harriet tell me that the yacht had a Greek name and an American flag on the back, but the hull number had been scratched off. Also, the name had been tampered with, so it wasn’t particularly clear. There was also no paperwork on board. George knew that Ocean Stars are built in Greece and mainly produced for Greek charter companies, so that made its origins certain…… but what had happened with it since?
George: “We tried to call through to the port on the VHF but we were too far offshore and no one was picking up. So I set up a towline, and we towed the ghost vessel for170 miles to Syracuse in Sicily. There had been absolutely no wind the entire way. It was crazy, but these unusual conditions made it possible. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to swim across and attach a line to it. We would have been forced to leave it there.”
Harriet was concerned that if they left the abandoned yacht where they found it, it could have posed a risk to other vessels, especially at night. George agreed but also had his mind on the rumours he’d heard about salvage rights and that you can claim what you find at sea. So they towed it in and handed it over to the authorities so that it wasn’t drifting around. They also wanted to investigate any potential reward… But soon they realised they had sailed headlong into Italian bureaucracy!
George: “We arrived in Syracuse and they put us into quarantine with the boat until they could figure out what was going on with it. So we were stuck at anchor with this boat still attached for 5 days! They were refusing to let us moor it in the marina or put it in a dry dock. They wouldn’t let us move from the anchorage and we weren’t even allowed to anchor the salvaged boat, as it would then need its own Captain! We needed to get up to Naples for our next guest trip, and it was all becoming very stressful.”
As they now had internet access, George and Harriet could now search for any report of a boat like this being stolen or going missing, but nothing came up. They also researched the law and confirmed that Italy is signed up to the International Maritime Convention. George explained to the Port Authority that according to maritime law, he -as the salvager- had the legal duty to hand the vessel over to them. They legally have to take possession and responsibility for the vessel and search for its owners. The protocol dictates that a 30-day advert is placed in the local newspaper offering an opportunity to find the boat’s owners. After that, the boat is impounded for another 30 days, after which it goes to auction for 30 days – so the whole process should take approximately 90 days.
George explains how things got really tricky when the authorities tried to get him to sign a document, which stated that he is responsible for the vessel but is leaving it in their possession. He had the good sense not to do this because if, for example, the boat had caught fire in the marina, he would have been liable for the damages. They ended up having to get advice from a lawyer and found a great guy at Luise Group, who sat down with them and the Port Authority. They were eventually able to sign a document stating that the authorities were taking possession AND responsibility for the vessel, but that George and Harriet have a financial claim over it.
Harriet tells me it seemed like the harbour master didn’t want the hassle of it. One can only imagine the paperwork he would have to go deal with. But I guess that goes with the job. I was curious to know what would happen if the boat was identified to be a migrant vessel. George explained that if the Italian authorities had discovered it carrying illegal immigrants, they would have removed them and the boat would have been marked with a red cross and later destroyed. They haven’t destroyed the boat and they haven’t yet found any information regarding it. This means they will have to re-register the vessel, create a boat certificate and then sell it.
Unfortunately, this opens up all kinds of questions regarding the boat’s history of use and the fate of its last occupants. With all the tragic stories we hear about desperate migrants trying any way to save themselves and their loved ones from whatever perils exist in their home countries, this find can lead one to grim and dark thoughts…
Harriet: “I have thought about that frequently and just had to quash it. All I can do is hope that things turned out OK for everyone and that they are now living better lives. But actually encountering the boat first-hand and seeing the reality that these people were living for a while was quite disturbing. I was also very nervous on the journey towing the boat back to land in case someone was hiding on it who might climb along the towline and board our boat at 3am! On the night shift, I was staring out in the direction of the ghost boat and felt really uneasy. I felt a lot better when the sun came back up and I could see the boat again. But there were a couple of times when I wondered if we had might the right decision.”
George and Harriet are currently waiting to find out when the ghost vessel is going to auction. The law entitles them to a third of the vessel’s value and they can claim reimbursement of salvage costs. This means they could eventually buy the boat at a much-reduced rate and have their own charter, or receive a reward amount for salvaging it. All will become clear in the next month or so and we will give you an update for sure!
Written by Lisa Thompson