The naval officers lept aboard the rusty, old ship and quickly spread out to search it. They had been told to remain calm – despite the eerie circumstances under which it appeared in their waters – and to find out what was going on as fast as possible.
But after a thorough investigation, they discovered there was no one aboard, and the ship had been missing for a decade. And what was that hanging off the front of it?
On the morning of August 30, 2018, two fishermen sat in their small houseboat off the coast of the Yangon Region in Myanmar. They had been waiting patiently for the catch of the day, just as they had done every morning of their working lives. But this day would be like no other.
The men slowly rose to their feet as a large shape shrouded in fog emerged on the horizon. But that wasn’t a shipping lane. Not one from this century anyway.
The panicked fishermen stared at each other in disbelief as it slowly dawned on them that the ghostly vessel was heading right for their boat.
As they desperately made their way out of the old, rusty ship’s path, they called the Coast Guard. But by the time they arrived on the scene, it was too late.
The creepy-looking ship ran aground on a sandbar before the Coast Guard, Myanmar Navy, and state police descended on the beach.
It was immediately obvious to them that this wasn’t a Burmese ship. No one had ever heard of the Sam Ratulangi let alone reported it missing, which was strange because while the old ship appeared to be in good working order, there was absolutely no one onboard. How did such a large ship end up like this?
A statement from U Ne Win, Yangon regional parliament MP for the nearby Thongwa township, told The Myanmar Times, “No crew or cargo was found on the ship. It was quite puzzling how such a big ship turned up in our waters.”
What they didn’t explain to the press was the intriguing clue to the tragic origins of the ship that the Coast Guard found hanging off the bow.
The Sam Ratulangi was a 177-meter (580-foot) container ship built in 2001. It was reportedly sailing under the Indonesian flag and embarked on its maiden voyage on that same year.
It sailed for eight years, transporting cargo throughout the world until one fateful voyage when it became lost at sea. But how did it arrive on the beach in Myanmar a whole decade later? And what happened to the crew?
According to manifests discovered aboard the ship, the Sam Ratulangi’s last official voyage began off the coast of Taiwan in 2009, sending chills down the spine of the officer that discovered the documents in the captain’s empty quarters.
But the two cables found hanging off the front of the ship helped fill the gaps between when it last officially set sail and when it almost plowed into a pair of fishermen with no crew at the helm almost 10 years later.
The cables prompted a naval investigation of the area. Soon enough, officers discovered a tug boat named Independence about 80 kilometers from where the “ghost ship” was found.
This time when the navy boarded, they were relieved to find signs of life. Aboard Independence were 13 Indonesian crew members. But if the crew members were all Indonesian, and the Independence was flying a Singaporean flag, where was the tugboat actually from? And did they have any information about the mysterious reappearance of the Sam Ratulangi?
The Indonesian government was quick to point out that although the crew was made up of its own people, what the Navy had found was a commercial vessel. “It has nothing to do with the Government,” insisted Muhammad Iqbal, director at the Indonesian Department of Citizen’s Protection.
So who were they? The Navy soon got the answers they were looking for.
After interrogating the crew members, Myanmar’s Navy discovered that the Independence had been towing the “ghost ship” to a factory in Bangladesh.
But tempestuous weather south of the Yangon River had led them into trouble and caused the cables to snap, sending the empty vessel right at the fishermen.
The owner of the Independence tugboat is thought to be from Malaysia, although exactly how he came across the Sam Ratulangi and what happened to its original crew remains a mystery.
Bangladesh is well-known for its ship-breaking industry. Hundreds of old commercial vessels are dismantled in Chittagong every year, despite the controversy surrounding its poor regulations and dangerous labor practices. The investigation continues.
The Sam Ratulangi isn’t the first “ghost ship” to appear in recent times. Several boats have been swept off to the coast of Japan, believed to be North Korean boats that headed too far out in search of fish.
Surely it shouldn’t be so easy to lose something as big as a boat. But perhaps it’s simply a testament to the sheer scale and perilous nature of the oceans they roam.