A story about things that go bump in the Venezuelan night, or how a bankrupt Canadian polar cruise company got tangled up in a trans-Atlantic geopolitical spat.
In the wee hours of March 30, an armed Venezuelan Coast Guard patrol ship fired on and rammed a Portuguese-flagged, Bahamian-owned, Canadian- and German-operated polar cruise ship floating not far from the uninhabited Venezuelan island of La Tortuga. The ice-class vessel survived, while the patrol ship sank. All of its crew were rescued.
While the media is covering the bizarre incident at sea as a humorous and wacky story which provides a welcome break from the coronavirus deluge, in fact, the reason why the ice-class cruise vessel was steaming towards the Caribbean involves a long trail of unpaid suppliers, creditors, and vendors, unpaid crew members, and hundreds of passengers who are now out tens of thousands of dollars each for luxury polar expeditions that will never happen.
In other words, the company can’t just be seen as the innocent victim of what some observers interpret as a boneheaded Venezuelan mission gone wrong.
So just how did RCGS Resolute end up in a pitched battle with the Bolivarian Navy that, as I’ll show, may in fact be a proxy battle for a dispute between Venezuela and Portugal? Let’s start at the beginning.
Resolute’s long voyage to bankruptcy
In 2007, Nova Scotia native Andrew Prossin founded Canadian tour outfitter One Ocean Expeditions to offer luxury cruises to the Arctic and Antarctica. Polar expeditions took place fairly seamlessly for about a decade, and the company grew to be one of the more well-established names in the industry. By 2018, the company decided to expand its fleet from two to three ships, leasing the now-infamous RCGS Resolute. That year, however, problems were already beginning.
Running aground in the Northwest Passage
In August 2018, one of One Ocean Expeditions’ three leased ships, Akademik Ioffe, ran aground in the Northwest Passage not far from the Nunavut village of Kugaaruk. Nobody was injured and no fuel was spilled. Yet the incident still drew attention to the dangers associated with the rising number of cruise ships sailing through the Northwest Passage.
Then, in December 2018, one passenger aboard a cruise to Antarctica described on Tripadvisor how the ship had been bizarrely unable to refuel in Ushuaia. The snafu resulted in a series of upsetting changes to the itinerary including only 3.5 days in Antarctica instead of five.
“I’m currently on the Resolute’s 12/10-12/20 Antarctica cruise, and it has been an unmitigated disaster…
…we were informed upon our arrival in Ushuaia that the ship did not have enough fuel for our trip, and we would therefore be taking an unscheduled 1.5-day detour to the Falkland Islands to fill up…
…Many of the staff (esp. the registration desk) are unknowledgeable or give outright false information, and the general impression given is of a fly-by-night operation. This is even more galling considering that the owner of One Ocean is on our ship, together with his personal guest Stephen Harper (former PM of Canada).”Comments on Tripadvisor from a passenger aboard a One Ocean Expedition cruise to Antarctica gone awry in December 2018
While Akademik Ioffe‘s grounding and the lack of fuel in Ushuaia may have been freak occurrences, bigger cracks in One Ocean Expeditions’ foundations soon began.
The Russians take back their ships
In May 2019, the Shirshov Institute of Oceanology in Moscow, Russia recalled the two vessels it normally leased to One Ocean Expeditions through a Cyprus-based vessel management company, Terragelida Ship Management. Since 2011, the two ice-class research vessels, Akademik Ioffe and Akademik Sergey Vavilov, had been leased on one-year renewable contracts.
Why the Russian research institute recalled the two research ships is unclear: they may have needed the ships, One Ocean Expeditions may not have been paying bills on time, or there may have been another reason altogether. While One Ocean Expeditions claims the two vessels had been leased through autumn 2019, the Nova Scotia-based Chronicle Herald claims the contracts were set to expire in summer. Therefore, they may have just not been renewed rather than broken.
Two ships down, the Canadian outfitter was unable to honor many of the expeditions passengers had already booked. This may have posed significant financial problems if, as alleged by the Chronicle Herald, One Ocean Expeditions was using payments for future cruises to cover current bills – including for things like the renovations to RCGS Resolute.
The company blamed its quandary on the Russians, attempted to restructure, and cancelled and rebooked (rather than refunded) passengers on future cruises, leaving many embittered. Meanwhile, crew members were going unpaid, as a Guardian investigation in 2019 revealed, and passengers were missing out on trips of a lifetime.
Arrested in Canada – twice
On August 9, 2019 in Iqaluit, at the end of the “South Baffin Explorer; Art, Culture & Wildlife” cruise and right before the start of the “Baffin Island and Greenland Explorer” cruise, RCGS Resolute was arrested – yes, the ship itself – in Iqaluit, Nunavut, over allegations of $100,000 in unpaid bills to a Nova Scotian contractor. In a scene straight out of a movie, the town’s sheriffs and officers went out on a boat into the harbor while crew members sailed up to it in a Zodiac (which it should be noted, has to be lowered from the eighth deck, which is quite dangerous).
The bills were likely paid, as a few hours later, the ship was on its merry way to Ilulissat, Greenland. Following a cruise off the world’s largest island, the ship made a westbound and then return eastbound journey through the Northwest Passage. Yet RCGS Resolute’s life as a cruise ship would not last more than a few more months.
On September 20, a services provider and eight former employees had the vessel arrested again, this time in Halifax, Nova Scotia, over two cases of claims of unpaid bills and wages. Four days later, the bills were paid and the ship began sailing south.
Antarctica or bust – literally
On October 16, at the start of the Antarctic cruise season, RCGS Resolute left on its final expedition, a 19-day trip from Ushuaia, Argentina to Antarctica that cost at least $21,195 per person. Yet supposedly due to problems with obtaining fuel in various ports in Argentina, the cruise was ultimately aborted after a few haphazard sailings around the coast.
“One couple in their 80s had saved their whole life for this journey and saved $50,000 to make this happen. And they were in tears.”Julie Pearce, a passenger aboard the cancelled RCGS Resolute cruise to Antarctica in October 2019, according to The Guardian (Oct. 31, 2019).
On October 27, the cruise’s 140 guests were left stranded and scrambling in Buenos Aires. Two days later, Prossin, One Ocean Expedition’s managing director, sent this explanatory letter:
Detained in Argentina
The next month in November, the Argentinian government ordered the ship to stay in Buenos Aires over unpaid bills once again. According to Argentinian newspaper Clarín, various companies and crew were demanding millions of dollars in unpaid fuel costs from One Ocean Expeditions. RCGS Resolute had been accused of unsavory behavior described as follows:
“The ship when it loads fuel does not pay in cash, leaves the port, disappears and on a 30 or 40 day route and then appear in a jurisdiction where it looks like it does not have to pay because there is no type of contingency…such that payments are delayed until they are intercepted in jurisdictions where the law intervenes by a claim from a provider who has somehow a guarantee on the ship.”
Argentina is a “friendly jurisdiction for ship arrest,” according to a document compiled by Francisco Venetucci, a maritime lawyer overseeing the case filed against RCGS Resolute. In other words, the country is dangerous waters for a nearly bankrupt cruise company with lots of angry debtors coming after it.
Due to the lawsuit in Argentina, RCGS Resolute was unable to commence its planned “photography symposium” 15-day cruise on November 6 from Ushuaia to South Georgia and Antarctica, leaving would-be passengers high and dry once again. One man only found out about the cancellation once he had already boarded his flight to South America. Another individual – an attorney from California, naturally – launched a Facebook group that now has 1,000 members posting complaints and tips daily about how to seek reimbursement.
Ultimately last autumn, One Ocean Expeditions cancelled three expeditions in a row. The company has allegedly refused to refund bookings and instead has recommended that they seek compensation from their travel insurance providers.
Bankrupt in Canada
On January 8, 2020, one woman wrote on the official One Oceans Expedition Facebook page (rather than the complaint group):
“thieves…. no reaction from them to their customers, just taking a lot of money, and are not providing any promissed service. Great debacle – don’t book any cruise there.”Carola Gemse on Facebook
A week later, the company announced it would begin insolvency proceedings.
In early March, four months after RCGS Resolute’s Buenos Aires detention, its Bahama-registered, Portugal-flagged shipowner, Bunnys Adventure & Cruise Shipping Co., Ltd (what a name!), paid $3.6 million to avoid the ship being sold at auction. According to the Chronicle Herald, “two European fuel suppliers, three South American ships agents, and 22 crew were paid as a result of the action.” And so on March 5, debts cleared, the polar vessel began sailing north from Bueno Aires. One presumes it would have been heading towards Canada, but Halifax News claims it did not have a destination.
Exactly what happened once it reached the waters around Venezuela depends on who you ask.
Venezuelan hell or high water
On March 29, RCGS Resolute supposedly began reporting that it was not under command while under international waters off of La Tortuga, a pristine uninhabited Venezuelan island. This status means that the ship cannot maneuver, and all other vessels should stay clear.
Sometime after midnight on March 30, the Venezuelan Coast Guard patrol ship Naiguatá spotted RCGS Resolute. While representatives of RCGS Resolute claim the ship was in international waters, Venezuela claims it was in territorial waters. Naiguatá radioed the vessel to find out what exactly a cruise ship – one that was also ice-strengthened, a fact probably not evident to the 42 members of the Bolivarian navy – was doing off the waters of La Tortuga, where yachts are more likely to be spotted than Canadian cruise vessels (and probably very few vessels at all right now given the COVID-19 pandemic).
What happened next depends on who you ask.
The official explanation from Columbia Cruise Services
According to a press release from Columbia Cruise Services, the ship’s Hamburg-based German technical manager, the Venezuelan vessel demanded to learn of the ship’s intentions and then ordered it to follow to Puerto Moreno on Isla de Margarita. While the ship’s master was reconfirming the request with the head office, crew members aboard the 100-m Naiguatá began firing pistol shots at the 122-m cruise ship and rammed its starboard side at an angle of 135°, trying to get her to turn toward Venezuelan territorial waters. A heavily edited clip released by the Venezuela Navy (or, more accurately, the Bolivarian Navy) captures the incident:
Video released by the Venezuelan Navy shows them shooting at the RCGS Resolute cruise ship then it shows the Resolute impacting the side of the GC-23 Naiguata and it shows severe damage to the Naiguata #Venezuela pic.twitter.com/ciI15v6SDt— CNW (@ConflictsW) April 4, 2020
The crew of Naiguatá may not have realized that RCGS Resolute had an ice-strengthened bulbous bow. While the cruise ship withstood minimal damage from the scuffle, the Venezuelan Coast Guard vessel ended up sinking. All 44 of its crew were rescued, and the 32 crew aboard Resolute are fine, too. No passengers were aboard at the time.
According to Columbia Cruise Services, as the Venezuelan vessel took on water, the polar cruise ship remained in the vicinity for one hour until it was confirmed that its assistance would not be needed. At that point, RCGS Resolute sailed to Willemstad, Curaçao’s capital, where it remains docked.
The Bolivarian Navy: Defeating terrorists and Castro-communism!
The Venezuelans tell a different story. The official press release from the Bolivarian Navy published on March 31 accused Resolute of “terrorism” and actions that were “cowardly and criminal, since it did not attend to the rescue of the crew, in breach of the international regulations that regulate the rescue of life at sea.” The navy claims that as the patrol ship was sinking, the cruise ship suspiciously turned off its Automatic Identification System (AIS) and then abandoned the site. The press release ended on a rather bombastic note:
Chávez lives!… The Homeland continues!
Independence and Socialist Homeland! … We will live and win!
Always loyal!… Traitors never!
A retired naval officer lamented the loss of Naiguatá, explaining rather colorfully:
“It is not a simple ship, it is a ship 100 meters long, with capacity for 60 crew on board, commissioned in 2012. A ship at sea has no ideologies, nor do they suffer from the evil of Castro-communism. It is a world of dedication, passion for the sea, professional dedication.”Vice Admiral Jesús Enrique Briceño García, former Commander General of the Bolivarian Navy of Venezuela (1995-1996)
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro: I wanted to help
Even Venezuela’s president has commented on the questionable incident at sea. Maduro questioned whether it really was a “peaceful ship” and suggested, “At first I thought it was one of those tourist ships that nobody wants to receive and I gave the order that the ship be received and that they receive all the support.” There are some rumors in Venezuela that the ship may have been clandestinely transporting armed mercenaries to fight against the Bolivarian Republic.
The humiliated Portuguese
The Portuguese foreign minister said the obvious: that there are “contradictory versions” of the incident, and that his country will “obviously collaborate either with Venezuela or with the Netherlands to fully clarify this incident.”
Portugal, it should be noted, has an ongoing dispute with the Venezuelan government.
In mid-February, the acting president of Venezuela who opposes Maduro, Juan Guiadó, boarded a TAP plane from Lisbon to Caracas after talks with European leaders. Maduro claims that his rival – who is recognized as Venezuela’s legitimate president by the United States and approximately fifty other countries – boarded the plane using a false identity while carrying explosives hidden in a pocket flashlight.
The Venezuelan government then prohibited TAP from flying into and out of Venezuela for ninety days, which is a big financial blow to the Portuguese national airline.
Ironically, in order to negotiate with the Venezuelan government over the incident, Portugal has now had to recognize Maduro as the country’s legitimate president.
In a press conference, Maduro’s second-in-command bemoaned his country’s “stolen money” frozen in Portuguese banks and said of the country, “Perhaps they still believe we are subjects, that we are a colony and that, as an empire they can give orders.”
So clearly, there is some bad blood between Venezuela and Portugal – enough that may have led Naiguatá to try to humiliate the Portuguese-flagged ship and potentially bring it to shore to be dealt with in what would have likely been a punitive manner by Venezuelan authorities.
One Ocean Expeditions: Still taking bookings to nowhere
RCGS Resolute has ended up in the Dutch constituent country of Curacao wrapped up not only in international financial debacles, but international geopolitical disputes, too. The beleaguered ship somehow may have become a pawn in a proxy fight between Venezuela and Portugal.
The fracas also leaves One Ocean Expeditions without any ships. Yet distressingly, the company is still taking inquiries about bookings for this season without any warning about its duress on its website. Given the company’s dealings, I would not be surprised if this is a deliberate effort to round up more money to pay off bills even though the Canadian outfitter knows full well it will not be able to provide the expeditions it is still glossily advertising.
The situation with which the cruise line is contending is a world apart from the stage its managing director, Prossin, found himself on with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2015. The Nova Scotian was receiving one of the awards presented to the 220 people who helped locate the Erebus ship from the doomed Franklin expedition on the bottom of the Northwest Passage after it disappeared 168 years years ago. Prossin received the award because a One Ocean Expeditions’ vessel, One Ocean Voyager (actually a renamed Akademik Sergey Vavilov, the same ship which would later be recalled by its Russian owner), carried Parks Canada’s remote operated vehicle (ROV) and autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV), which were used to scan the seabed for signs of HMS Erebus.
“Imagine the holy grail of your career, in 25 years, you get to take part of it. I’ve got to say I was just kind of electrified when I got up on the stage to receive that medal.”Andrew Prossin, managing director of One Ocean Expeditions, in 2015 upon receiving an Erebus medal from former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper for helping to find the lost ship.
I imagine his date in court will be electrifying, too. Whether that will be in Curaçao or Caracas remains to be seen.