Ghost ship stories and abandoned vessel tales are all part of the maritime world and the fantasies we built around it. Those phantom ship sales have been carried around for centuries, often frightening us and leaving us with a sense of awe.
Albeit all those being legends without any tangible proofs, some stories are authentic, and some of which happen in modern times.
One of those ghost ship tales is that of the boat that drifted ashore of the Myanmarese coast. Read on to discover how unique it is and what turned it into an international sensation!
A Sight Out of a Novel
Everything started on August 30, 2018. A group of local fishermen from Yangon Region in Myanmar saw in the distance something that they would be talking about for years to come. A puzzling shape was taking form in front of their eyes. They were so puzzled about its origin that they alerted the authorities.
Due to the light fog that day, the fishermen were seriously concerned. The shape of the object was truly unearthly. It looked like a ghost ship, devoid of all passengers and life forms. They decided to call the Coast Guard, navy, and police immediately.
All the Burmese authorities they contacted flew to the scene and descended to the beach. The Coast Guard, Navy, and the state police all wanted to verify the identity of this strange ghost ship. One thing was sure: it was not a Burmese ship. The boat kept on approaching the shore until it hit a sandbar.
The boat did not give off any signal and did not respond to any hails. It also didn’t make any distress call whatsoever. The teams kept on observing the boat to detect some activity, but it seemed like no one was on board.
A Few Clues
The teams took action right after they made sure the boat passengers were not manifesting themselves. As the massive seemingly ghost ship sat silently on the sandbar, the authorities were able to discern a few words painted on it: “Sam Ratulangi PB 1600”.
Could that give the authorities an idea about its origin? Did it run off course during a storm? If it was the case, how did it make its way to Myanmar completely unmanned? No one would know for sure, but those four words were the only lead for the moment.
The news and speculations about the ghost ship story ran wild and made their way to the area of Yangon, the country’s largest city. The Myanmar Navy was then drafted for assistance, as its personnel had the best equipment to take a close look at the Sam Ratulangi.
They decided to run a detailed inventory of the ship, only to realize that it was covered with rust and rot. The outside of the ship seemed quite decaying, but not as much as the inside. Although this was a puzzling detail, it wasn’t what made the authorities scratch their head the most.
They made their way to the expanses of the floundering vessel to take more detailed inventory and soon realized that it had almost been completely covered by rust and rot. Though it had not been rendered unable to function by the decay, its state of neglect was obvious. However, this wasn’t the only aspect of the ship that left them scratching their heads.
No Soul On Board
The ship had been rendered unable to function by decay, but this wouldn’t explain a broader mystery. U Ne Win, the Yangon regional parliament MP for the nearby Thongwa township said to 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.” The Marine salvage crews scoured the boat but found no sign of life on board, nor any sign on the whereabouts of the crew or the passengers.
This baffling story made the news, and the investigation began.
After several thorough searches, it became apparent that the teams wouldn’t get any information from the inside of the ship. Investigators took a look at the background of the vessel hoping they would find something. They discovered that the Sam Ratulangi was a 177-meter (580-foot) container ship built in 2001.
It was reportedly sailing under the Indonesian flag and made its maiden voyage on that year. It sailed for eight years, transporting cargo throughout the world until it was lost in the sea after one trip. Had it really been sailing aimlessly in the ocean since then?
Burmese authorities had been scouring all the logs that may contain mention of the Sam Ratulangi of the last years. They finally found out that the last documented voyage made by the ghost ship was nine years ago in 2009. It had been docked in Taiwan, its last known location.
However, the documentation of that last voyage drew a massive gap in any knowledge of the whereabouts of the ship. How was it possible that it sailed the high seas for nearly a decade without being noticed? Where was it exactly?
But following the documentation of that final voyage came a massive gap in any knowledge of the whereabouts of the ship. For nine whole years, it seemed, the Sam Ratulangi had been wandering the high seas undocumented and unaccounted for, until rearing its head on the Burmese sandbanks. Where had it been since then?
The Journey Is Halted
A little bit of geography can explain how Sam Ratulangi washed ashore on the Burmese coastline. It was initially believed that ship ran into trouble when going through the Sittaung River. The latter had strong currents and shallow waters, which make it almost impossible for large trip sails to navigate.
The river was instead used by small vessels to transport timber. Those smaller boats were only sailing from one side of Myanmar to the other. You can imagine how unlikely it is for a large cargo ship to use that passageway. However, while we may have found an explanation to the ship itself, this didn’t shed any light on the fate of the crew.
A Scenario Straight Out of a Movie
How did such a large ship with no crew end up in Myanmar? What was its story? While the ghost ship was the tale of the town and the country, no one could explain its mystery. Government officials themselves were at a loss. However, strangely enough, there was a single detail that would soon open the curtain to major revelations.
Seemingly benign, this one clue would be the first thread to pull to reveal the secrets of the ship, and it was unique: two cables at the front of the ship.
Even amidst the craziest theories advanced by the public, investigators from the Myanmar Navy kept on digging to unveil the suspicious circumstances surrounding Sam Ratulangi‘s last voyage. They checked the radar logs of the ship nine years prior to the incident and discovered something interesting. Sam Ratulangi had not been the only ship to traverse the waters shortly before it had appeared in Myanmar.
A small tugboat was sailing close to the ship by that time. Was it a coincidence? Apparently not. The tugboat, called The Independence, had been towing the Sam Ratulangi at the time. Could The Independence be the key to unlocking our ghost ship secrets?
When the Myanmar Navy searched for The Independence, they found it roughly 50 miles away from the Burmese coast. After questioning its 13 crew members about the working history of their ship and any connection it may have with the ghost ship, they discovered that the two boats were indeed strongly attached.
It seems like the crew members of The Independence had been on duty tugging the Sam Ratulangi. When they encountered more turbulent weather, they were forced to drift away from their initial intended course. That shift could be the reason behind the cargo ship’s current location.
The crew members revealed that they had been sailing on their way to a factory in Bangladesh while tugging the Sam Ratulangi. That’s also when their towed cargo was to be unloaded and dismantled.
Unfortunately, this plan didn’t work out. When the two ships became separated, the cargo ship was carried out into the waters of the Bay of Bengal, between Bangladesh and Myanmar. With one less mystery surrounding the ghost ship, the authorities now only needed to uncover what happened to the crew of the ship. And in September 2018, Myanmar—and the rest of the world, finally found the answer.
Officials investigating the trajectory of the Sam Ratulangi were in for many surprises. They estimated that one possibility was that the crew of the boat abandoned it when the weather got too bad to sail in it.
But even this simple theory was difficult to prove and raises even more questions. Where was the crew then? The investigation went on and on, only to reveal an incredible discovery.
Even though the Sam Ratulangi was covered in dust and rust when it washed ashore, its insides surprised the technical crews.
The ghost ship wasn’t a useless shell of its former self. After being discovered in the Yangon Region in Myanmar, it was found out that it was still in working condition! The question remained: why had the cargo ship been hauled to be dismantled in Bangladesh in the first place?
Not Too Shabby
Ships at the size of our famous cargo ghost ship have a life expectancy of around 25-30 years. But as we said in the beginning, the Sam Ratulangi was well below that age. So how would we explain that it was towed away multiple times? The two lines at the front of the boat and the crew of The Independence all confirmed this theory, so investigators just had to put the pieces of the puzzle together to get a logical explanation.
The ship was meant to be dismantled instead of refurbished and put back to use. This condition meant that there would have been something (very) wrong with the ship for it not to be sold off to the junkyard for spare parts and materials.
The most plausible theory to explain it would be the following: there must have been a financial incentive for The Independence crew to have hurried off to Chittagong, Bangladesh, to get rid of the Sam Ratulangi. Since no one was claiming ownership of the boat, getting it dissembled as quickly as possible would mean getting away from its responsibility.
The only problem that remains is recycling the boat. While dismantling found ships was the most natural and environment-friendly act to do, the process is still very unregulated since the risks of being harmed remain high. So what would the fate of the Sam Ratulangi be when it fell into the hands of the Myanmarese government?
In Proper Custody
As the authorities were taking apart the mysteries of the Sam Ratulangi, it was—and still is—in safe hands. Until the full story of the ghost ship is uncovered, the ghost ship will stay under the capable protection of the Myanmar Navy.
Burmese authorities hope that over the next coming months, they will have a better understanding of the chronology and circumstances surrounding the disappearance of the ship. They will need, above all, to know how a ship that size vanished off the charts for nearly a decade.
The story of the Sam Ratulangi PM 1600 is only one in many though.
Spooky Sights on the High Seas
While the media wildly relaid the story of this ghost ship across the world, it is not the only ghost ship that had appeared in the waters of East Asia in recent years. Many others have been found across the Western Pacific.
Japan, in particular, has seen the rise of these incidents in the last few years. Many times, ships and boats have washed up on its shores, seemingly coming from North Korea.
Whether they were lost fishermen or political defectors, those instances are still heart-wrenching.
A Grim Truth
While the story of the Indonesian ghost ship we covered is full of mystery, it wouldn’t compare to the stories of the North Korean ships drifting ashore on the Japanese coastlines.
There have been at least 76 recorded cases of fishing vessels that ended up on Japanese shores alone. The chances of crews to survive are very slim. However, there was one case in particular that stood out from the rest — as its crew somehow miraculously survived the horrific journey.
While our Indonesian ship was empty of any cargo or passengers, North Korean ships that arrive in Japan often contain a much more disheartening cargo: the bodies of passengers.
On one more fortunate instance though, the police in Akita Prefecture discovered in 2017 eight North Korean men whose boat had beached on Japan’s northern coast. All were alive. Their origins are still pretty unclear. Are they defectors, spies, or maybe something else?
Just like with Sam Ratulangi, only time will tell.
Thanks to IcePop for the pictures and information!
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