On a wild and dangerous stretch of the Irish coast, a ferocious storm whips the waves into a frenzy. But as the violent weather rages on, something unexpected washes up against the shore. After the winds die down, a runner spots a bizarre object wedged on a rocky beach. How did it get there, though, and what’s the story behind its extraordinary journey?
In February 2020, just after St. Valentine’s Day, people across the United Kingdom and Ireland battened down the hatches and prepared for the wrath of Storm Dennis to hit. Down in County Cork, some 150 miles southwest of Dublin, a weather warning left residents on high alert. And as gusts of up to 75 mph lashed the Irish coast, something out in the ocean was making its way closer to shore.
As it tore across the country, the storm left a trail of destruction in its wake. Trees were blown down, flood waters rose and thousands of homes were left without electricity. But near the picturesque fishing village of Ballycotton, something altogether more sinister arrived. And it’s a mystery that has since captured imaginations around the world.
Before Storm Dennis hit on February 15, the people of the United Kingdom and Ireland were already suffering. Just seven days earlier, Storm Ciara had struck the region, battering homes and businesses with strong gusts and torrential rain. In some places, gales reached 80 mph, and three people died in the ensuing chaos.
Sadly, though, residents across the region barely had time to recover before experts began forecasting another incoming storm. And the following weekend, the wrath of Storm Dennis descended upon the British Isles. Indeed, by February 16 things had become so bad that the authorities feared that more people could lose their lives.
At the U.K.’s Meteorological Office, experts warned that Storm Dennis had all the characteristics of what’s known as a “weather bomb.” And as roads rapidly disappeared underwater throughout the country, it was easy to see why. Stranded by disrupted transport and canceled flights, thousands of Brits were forced to simply wait out the storm.
Soon, winds had reached speeds of 70 mph, while torrential rain poured nonstop from the heavens. In fact, it’s believed that in excess of 50 percent of the average monthly rainfall descended on the British Isles in just 24 hours. And sadly, the authorities’ more macabre predictions were also proved correct.
Indeed, on the first day of the storm, two deaths were caused by the violent weather that raged across the region. Somewhere off the coast of the United Kingdom, a man fell from a boat and drowned. Meanwhile, in the southeast county of Kent, the lifeless body of a teenager was pulled out of the sea.
The next day, a third tragedy occurred when a man drowned in flood waters close to the Welsh village of Trebanos. And by the time that the weather abated, two more people had lost their lives. Both victims were women – one died in Worcestershire, England, while the other perished in Wales.
Elsewhere, families who’d been planning to spend the school holidays abroad found themselves grounded as airlines canceled more than 150 flights across the region. And even as the winds died down, the dangers were far from over. After the deluge of rain, floodwaters began to rise, and the authorities issued in excess of 300 warnings.
In one Welsh village, for example, residents were forced to abandon their cars as they disappeared beneath the ever-rising floods. Emergency services subsequently used inflatable dinghies to rescue stranded families from their homes. And in the English county of Herefordshire, the waters rose so high that they bypassed specially constructed defenses.
In Ireland, as many as nine counties spent the weekend on red alert, from Donegal in the north to Kerry in the far southwest of the country. And as strong winds battered the region, close to 20,000 buildings lost their power supplies. In addition, some planes were grounded in the capital, Dublin, while drivers were warned to be careful.
By the evening of February 17, the winds had begun to abate, although several flood warnings were still in place. And eventually, having wrought havoc across the British Isles, Storm Dennis began to peter out. However, the region was left in chaos, with some experts estimating that the resulting losses amounted to £15 billion.
Moreover, the huge financial costs – not to mention the tragic loss of life – weren’t the only legacies that Storm Dennis left behind. For example, over in Ballycotton, a small fishing village on Ireland’s wild southern coast, the extreme weather brought a strange gift to this remote community. And before long, it was making headlines around the world.
Located in the picturesque County Cork region of southern Ireland, Ballycotton is a popular tourist destination despite its isolated setting. And throughout the summer months, its streets throng with families keen to explore its charms. In winter, though, this spot above the Atlantic Ocean takes on a more desolate vibe.
By the time that Storm Dennis arrived, Ballycotton had long since waved goodbye to the summer visitors and was in the depths of a long, cold winter. For days, residents huddled indoors as strong winds and torrential rains battered their community. But when they were finally able to venture outside, they discovered a shocking sight.
On February 15, 2020, a runner named Barry McDonald ventured out along the coast at Ballycotton. But at the foot of some cliffs outside the village, he spotted something that had definitely not been there before the storm. Wedged against a rocky beach was a 250-foot ship, with waves crashing against its blue-painted hull.
But where had the mystery ship come from? And was anybody still aboard? Within hours, the Irish Coast Guard had arrived at the scene and dispatched a helicopter to take a closer look. However, they were met with an eerie silence – the vessel, it seemed, was unoccupied.
Before long, the ship was identified as the Alta, a merchant vessel built 40 years ago. So how had it ended up beached on the Irish coast, with its crew nowhere to be seen? Well, as the ghost ship sparked discussion around the world, a strange story began to emerge.
Built in 1976, the Alta was initially called the Tananger, a name that it kept until 1990. And over the course of 40 years, the vessel switched identity no fewer than six times. After bearing the monikers Pomar Murman, Polar Trader, Avantis II, Avantis I and Elias, it was rechristened once again in 2017.
Now bearing a new name, the Alta was registered in the East African nation of Tanzania – but it’s still not known who owned the vessel at this juncture. What is certain, though, is that at some point in 2018 it departed Greece on a 5,500-mile journey to the Caribbean island of Haiti. However, it would never reach its final destination.
While the Alta was sailing through the Atlantic Ocean in September 2018, it developed some technical issues. With no power on board, the vessel floated aimlessly across the waters for 11 days. By that point, it had reached a spot some 1,400 miles from the island of Bermuda in the North Atlantic.
According to reports, the crew of the Alta couldn’t to fix the problem with their ship. As a result, eventually they reached out to the United States Coast Guard for assistance. The USCG Cutter Confidence subsequently abandoned its operations near Puerto Rico and sailed to the stricken vessel’s aid.
Once they’d caught up to the Alta, the crew of the Cutter Confidence began delivering essential items by air. However, those on board the drifting ship were forced to wait even longer for a tug vessel to arrive. And as the days ticked by, a tropical storm began to approach.
Ultimately, the rescuers opted to remove the people on board the Alta. By this point, they’d been drifting for almost three weeks. And with her crew safely in Puerto Rico, the abandoned vessel continued to drift. Back on land, the Coast Guard attempted to contact its proprietors and persuade them to launch a salvage operation.
What happened next, however, remains unclear. In the summer of 2019 the journalist Mikhail Voytenko received a message from a group purporting to be the proprietors of the Alta. Apparently, they had indeed engaged the services of a salvage company to retrieve the vessel from the Atlantic Ocean. Unfortunately, though, they’d been unwittingly caught up in a scam.
According to the message, the supposed salvage-company workers were in fact impostors. And rather than rescue the Alta, it seems that they took control of the vessel and brought it to the South American country of Guyana. Eventually, the owners were made aware of the current location of their ship. Before they could retrieve it, however, disaster struck once more.
This time, the message claimed, the Alta was taken from Guyana. At a loss as to what to do next, the alleged owners said they were approaching Voytenko for help. But after reaching out to the journalist, they went quiet. In fact, the missing ship simply dropped off the radar for the next couple of months.
Then, in September 2019 the crew of the HMS Protector, a Royal Navy vessel, shared some snaps on their Twitter account. Apparently, they’d spotted the Alta drifting in the Atlantic. Concerned, they approached the ship and attempted to communicate with anyone who might be on board.
Much to the surprise of those on board the Protector, however, the Alta remained silent. And to them, it appeared as if the ship had been abandoned. Unable to assist in any other way, they took a few photographs and left the ship to continue on its mysterious journey.
Amazingly, that was the last known sighting of the Alta before Storm Dennis washed the vessel up on the Irish coast more than five months later. Somehow, the ship had traveled right across the Atlantic despite seemingly being without a crew to guide it. And according to John Tattan of Ballycotton’s Royal National Lifeboat Institution, it had undertaken quite a journey.
“It has come all the way up from the African coast, west of the Spanish coast, west of the English coast and up to the Irish coast,” Tattan said in a February 2020 interview with the Irish Examiner. “I have never, ever seen anything abandoned like that before.”
However, Tattan was baffled as to how the Alta had made its way unseen past the multiple fishing boats that ply the waters off the Irish coast. “This is one in a million,” he exclaimed. But as crowds flocked to see the abandoned ghost ship, the authorities grew concerned that it might pose a pollution risk.
The day after the ship was discovered at Ballycotton, representatives from Cork County Council arrived to assess the situation. Thankfully, their tests didn’t find any evidence of pollutants in the vicinity. Then, on February 18 experts were able to enter the abandoned ship.
Once on board the Alta, the contractors soon discovered that there was no cargo left on the vessel. However, they did find some oil stored in closed tanks – items that could become problematic in the future. And although investigations revealed little fuel left in the accessible tanks, there may have been more in the storage compartments that couldn’t be reached.
Mindful that these factors had the potential to cause pollution in the area, contractors began work the following day. But as they drained out water from the stricken vessel, the story of the Alta continued to draw people to Ballycotton. In fact, Cork County Council was forced to issue a statement warning members of the public to keep their distance from the wreck.
According to the council’s statement, which was published on February 17, the wreck “is located on a dangerous and inaccessible stretch of coastline and is in an unstable condition.” Nevertheless, social media soon started to fill up with photographs of the dramatic scene. And within days, a video was posted that featured amateur explorers on board the ship.
In addition, someone made a startling claim to Revenue Commissioners, the group that had assumed the role of Receiver of Wreck. Apparently, this person stated that they were speaking on behalf of the owner of the ill-fated Alta. But until these assertions can be proved, it seems that the fate of the vessel remains to be determined.
In a February 2020 interview with The Irish Times, salvage expert Sean Harrington expressed his concerns over any further delays. “The longer it goes on, the more she is going to become an environmental hazard and the bigger a job it’s going to become, and the more money it’s going to cost to do it,” he explained.
For the time being, then, the Alta remains in its precarious perch at the edge of the Irish Sea. And as they awaited a resolution, the authorities reiterated their stark warning. “This is not a ship berth at a dock,” Cork County Council’s Kevin Morey told the Irish Examiner. “So stay away. If you want to see what the ship looks like, go on the internet. You’ll see it on TV.”