Wikinews investigates disappearance of Indonesian cargo ship Namse Bangdzod

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Thursday, January 10, 2019

In late December, Indonesian cargo ship MV Namse Bangdzod vanished in local waters. The tanker, gross tonnage around 1,150 and loaded with crude palm oil, had over ten crewmembers. Wikinews examined data and contacted experts and local authorities in an effort to establish further details.

The exact date of disappearance is unclear, with industry publications reporting either December 27 or December 28. Crew totals are also unclear, with both eleven and twelve reported by industry sources while The Jakarta Post reports a captain and eleven other crew. Wikinews has contacted the Command and Control Centre of the Coast Guard seeking to clarify, among other things, the date of the disappearance and is awaiting a response.

A file image of KN Jembio, an Indonesian Coast Guard vessel.
Image: Indonesian Ministry of Transportation.

Wikinews is also awaiting responses from both the Coast Guard and the National Search and Rescue Agency detailing the efforts being made to find the ship, which was last known to be in the Java Sea. MV Namse Bangdzod sailed with cargo from Sampit, a port town on a river in Borneo; it was last bound for Jakarta. It is owned and operated by Indonesian companies and also registered in Indonesia. The 75 m (250 ft) ship was built in 1993 in Japan.

Ships broadcast their position and other information via both the Automatic Identification System (AIS) and the Long Range Identification and Tracking (LRIT) system. AIS is a ship-to-ship safety system, but can also be detected from further afield by satellites. Marine Traffic's AIS tracking database shows a reestablishment of AIS contact by MV Namse Bangdzod on January 6, with a pattern described by Marine Bulletin as "rather hectic and kind of confused". In addition to asking local authorities, Wikinews sought expert input on the AIS data.

Dr. Tristan Smith of University College London, a shipping researcher with expert experience interpreting AIS results, explained to Wikinews that crews might turn their AIS transponders off on purpose for security reasons, such as "in certain sea areas where piracy is a risk" in order to "avoid attracting unwanted attention. This can involve them being turned off for several days at a time." Doug Miller of Milltech Marine, a firm specialising in AIS, told our correspondent an AIS transponder will broadcast automatically provided it has power and antennae, even if the crew abandoned the vessel.

An exemplar image of movements within a busy shipping channel generated from AIS data.
Image: Pline.

Baslan Damang, a security official from the port of departure, on Tuesday told The Jakarta Post radio broadcasts were being used to alert other traffic such as fishing vessels to look out for MV Namse Bangdzod. He added authorities "are still waiting for updates on the tanker's condition, so please refrain from speculating that it had been hijacked". As of yesterday, no oil slicks or other evidence of accidents have been found along the scheduled route the vessel was due to take. A major search continues.

Miller and Smith both acknowledged faults with the AIS system on-board as possible explanations, with Miller describing issues with the signal between the transponder and the satellite receiving it as one potential scenario for intermittent data reception. He too suggested a hypothetical scenario, in which "the AIS equipment has been tampered with or has been turned off for some of the time — either intentionally or accidentally or due to a power malfunction." Smith called the disappearance an "interesting" case; Miller said "It is a little hard to definitively say what's going on". Miller explained that while transponders generally transmit every ten seconds "even if the transponder is transmitting there is no guarantee that other vessels or MarineTraffic can see it". "It could also be a power supply issue or faulty transponder", said Smith.

Indian naval sailors conducting counterpiracy work in foreign waters, in this case the Gulf of Aden, from file.
Image: Indian Navy.

Smith told Wikinews "There are also some operations done on ships containing hazardous cargoes[...] where all risks of sparking/arcs need to be removed and radio transmitting equipment is sometimes turned off for this reason." He said this applied to product tankers, but the long duration of AIS downtime would in this instance be unusual if this is the reason. Smith had one more theory: Namse Bangdzod could be the victim of identity theft, with a second vessel conducting manoeuvres it wished to conceal while falsely transmitting information identifying itself as Namse Bangdzod. Smith told Wikinews this might happen in cases of illegal fishing. He stated "In this scenario, it would normally be expected that both the legal and illegal transmission would be received but depending on how Marine Traffic handle this, it's possible the two signals could be confused."

File photo of an Australian naval boat in Jakarta.
Image: The Australian Embassy in Jakarta.

Smith drew attention to LRIT as another method for search and rescue personnel to find the tanker. Unlike AIS, which is a safety and tracking system, LRIT is used for maritime security by seagoing nations. Created under the auspices of the International Maritime Organization, LRIT allows states to examine data about ships bearing their flag, visiting their ports, or in or near their waters.

Like all vessels exceeding 300 tons, Namse Bangdzod is required to transmit LRIT data. Search and rescue bodies can also access this information; Smith told Wikinews he believed this would include foreign navies with ships in the Java Sea. Singapore, India, and Australia have in the past conducted emergency searches of the Java Sea: All three nations offered military assistance after Indonesia AirAsia Flight 8501 vanished in December 2014.

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What has happened to MV Namse Bangdzod?

Marine Traffic's website's most recently publicly available AIS result, as of Tuesday, showed the ship underway a few miles off Jakarta. VesselFinder listed no AIS results for the last month. Vessel Tracker's database had no sighting of the ship within the last 59 days on Tuesday; the website noted the AIS signal received from Jakarta but declared the ship was not actually there. Maritime Connector has an entry for the ship in its database but has no location data available.

Local authorities, according to Maritime Bulletin, have noted other unusual AIS data. The website yesterday suggested piracy, perhaps to obtain the valuable cargo, is now the most prominent theory. The Indonesian Palm Oil Producers Association reports a value of US$473.60 per metric ton of crude palm oil as of November 2018, with the price decreasing that month. "Its plausible that an explanation [why] the AIS transponder is not transmitting is that it had been turned off by pirates who wanted to hamper the efforts of a rescue mission" Smith told Wikinews yesterday.

Yesterday the Search and Rescue Agency told The Jakarta Post it was intending to end its search on the basis of piracy, which is outside its remit; the paper also spoke to the Navy, who told it this was as-yet uncomfirmed and noted no ransom has been sought and the ship vanished from an area without previous piracy problems. Four Navy ships assisted by aircraft are searching. "We will continue searching until we find it," 1st Fleet Command's Navy Information Agency head Arba Agung told The Jakarta Post, which also today reported location data falsely showing the ship in Sunda Kelapa Port after its inaccurate position in Jakarta Bay was recorded.

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Sources

Wikinews
This article features first-hand journalism by Wikinews members. See the collaboration page for more details.
Wikinews
This article features first-hand journalism by Wikinews members. See the collaboration page for more details.
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