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'Ghost ship' moves in eternal circles in Black Sea

As slow boats to China go, it is surely among the slowest.

For a year now, the engine-less hulk of a 300-metre aircraft carrier has been moving in tight circles off Turkey's Bosphorus strait, leashed, it would seem for eternity, to a tugboat called the Sandy Cape. Its 15-man crew, guardians of a "ghost-ship" no one seems to want, wait in vain for leave to pass.

For the Varyag carrier, conceived in the 1980s as the Soviet Union's grand challenge to US sea power, then hawked off half- built to a Chinese company for conversion to a floating "fun palace", it would seem the final indignity.

"Maybe this is now the longest voyage in the world," says Ray Aba Gatnam, Filipino master of the Sandy Cape, with a measured laugh over the ship's telephone.

"You know, we don't call it Varyag any more. We've got a new name. We call it the Alcatraz," he chortles, invoking the former US island prison from which, reputedly, no one ever escaped.

It may be the height of political farce, a nautical cabaret, in relations between Turkey and China.

But the joke has worn thin for the Dutch ITC company employed by China to tow Varyag to the orient from a Ukraine only too pleased to be rid of it for a knockdown $20 million.


When Turkey refused China permission in March for the Varyag to pass the Bosphorus into the open sea, ITC was left holding, or rather, pulling, the baby. The company says Chinese payments of $8,500 a day have dried up and the costs of keeping the crew and the Sandy Cape at sea mount up.

"That is the biggest problem we have," says general manager Joop Timmermans from ITC headquarters in Heernstede.

The Chinese company and the Chinese embassy in Ankara maintain a studied silence on the issue of the Vargyag.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, newly-independent Ukraine was left with the Varyag, 80 per cent complete but with no engine or rudder. Repeated bids to sell it failed until it was bought by the Chinese firm Agencia Turistica e Diversoes Chong Lot Limitada.

The Varyag should be reborn as a floating hotel, casino and leisure complex with shops, restaurants and countless other diversions. Not so, for now.

Kiev washed its hands of the ship. Now its Chinese owners, dreams fading of a cavernous palace vibrant with the hum of roulette wheels and the brush of blackjack cards on green baize, grow impatient. ITC however is, literally, tied to the problem.

"We're kept on a string but there's a bit of hope now. We hear that something is cooking on a high level in China," says Timmermans. "I don't know what it all means."

Government officials confirm contacts with Beijing continue.

The foreign ministry, seeking good relations with Beijing, raised no objections to the request to tow the 55,000-tonne monster from the Black Sea through the strait for what should have been a leisurely 60-day trip to China by way of the Suez canal.

But Turkish state minister for maritime affairs Ramazan Mirzaoglu gave a blunt 'no'. The Varyag, he insisted, would be a menace to the 12 million inhabitants of Istanbul and to the villas and palaces that line the banks of the Bosphorus.

Under the 1936 Montreux Convention, merchant ships heading from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean have free passage through the Bosphorus in peacetime, but aircraft carriers, covered by a later addition, require permission.

Mirzaoglu, of the rightist Nationalist Action Party (MHP), insists the Varyag does not even qualify as a carrier.

"It has no engine. It is only a vast floating platform."

In the March dispute with the foreign ministry, Mirzaoglu prevailed and premier Bulent Ecevit refused permission.

Most technical experts say the Varyag could pass safely if the right tugs were used to secure it against the twisting currents of the treacherous, winding waterway. A ship without an engine and almost as long, the SS United States of America, passed through in the 1990s without incident.

Diplomats say the minister may be registering a political protest at the increasing passage of large ships, especially Russian oil tankers. More than 50,000 ships pass through Istanbul every year, including 2,500 oil tankers.

Experts, however, say a fully laden oil supertanker would pose a far greater hazard than the Varyag secured by tugs.

China may be offering new hope that the dispute will be settled and the two fatefully entwined ships sent on their way, said Timmermans, without elaborating. But if no solution is forthcoming and ITC is not paid, problems arise.

Theoretically, some experts argue, if the contract lapses, the tug could just cut the lines and abandon her, but maritime law is vague here.

"It's a problem," says Timmermans, clearly a distinguished master of calm understatement. "It isn't our ship, but if we cut the lines no one would appreciate us for that."


Meanwhile, the Varyag circles, its vast projecting deck towering over the valiant Sandy Cape and its largely Filipino crew who foster little hope of reaching their destination.

Hopes, though, are high that a relief crew may arrive this week.

"What are they doing?" says Timmermans. "Well, I hope they're painting or such like."

The master of the Sandy Cape says the crew find enough to keep themselves occupied through the days. The deck is large enough for games of volleyball and basketball.

"Well, there is work to do, of course," he says. "Then there's television. Sometimes we get Turkish or Bulgarian or Romanian TV. The crew may not understand the language but you can usually work out from the action what's going on."

Mikhail Krivoruchko is one of three Ukrainians who have been on the voyage for the whole year. It is his first trip abroad.

He inspects Varyag regularly, going aboard with flashlights -- the ship has no power and all is darkness below decks.

"It's in good condition, just the occasional small leak, easily fixed. Yes, we miss our families but we're treated well."

Some Turkish newspapers have suggested China wants to use the Varyag, one of only two carriers of the illustrious Kuznetsov class that made it to sea, to develop its own carrier. The Varyag was built to send 2,500 men to sea over 3,800 miles, armed with 35 warplanes as well as missiles and guns.

Naval experts, however, say Beijing, which has already bought several decommissioned carriers could glean little from Varyag, besides some hints on materials used in construction.

Captain Gatnam hopes the Sandy Cape will be relieved this month, to put in for maintenance.

The days, he says, are not without incident, the most recent being what he refers to wryly as an "alien landing". The incident is taken up with gusto by Krivoruchko.

"Suddenly we looked up and saw a helicopter rotor above the Varyag," he says. "We swung around so that we had a view and we saw three men walking on the deck making measurements.

"We went aboard to check and as we arrived the helicopter flew off over the horizon. We found an inscription on the bulkhead in blue chalk: 'The French Was There'."

Like most things surrounding Varyag, it remains a mystery.