The Hijacking of the Brillante Virtuoso
July 29, 2017 12:52 PM   Subscribe

The Brillante Virtuoso was apparently hijacked in the Gulf of Aden in July of 2011, but: Six years after it was abandoned, the Brillante Virtuoso is an epithet among shipping veterans, one that reveals their industry’s capacity for lawlessness, financial complexity, and violence. This account is based on court evidence, private and government records, and more than 60 interviews with people involved, almost all of whom asked not to be identified, citing the sensitivities of nine-figure litigation and, in some cases, concern for their own safety. Everyone at sea that night survived. But the danger was just getting started.
posted by mandolin conspiracy (12 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
I've only recently been paying more attention to modern pirate stories and shipping stories, and I always find them unexpectedly fascinating. Thank you for sharing this. (And the "Cast of Characters" link on the page is elegantly done.)
posted by lazuli at 1:23 PM on July 29, 2017

A great book to read if you want to know more about shipping is Ninety Percent of Everything by Rose George. Just finished it, it's fascinating and it really gets into the seediness of the industry and the human toll of said seediness. Also does not glorify and romanticize pirates which I love.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 1:35 PM on July 29, 2017 [4 favorites]

It seems like a straightforward insurance scam except many of the people involved would kill you as soon as look at you. I'm glad the crew got out alive.
posted by Bee'sWing at 2:00 PM on July 29, 2017 [6 favorites]

I liked Rose George's The Big Necessity. Looks like something to look for next time at the library.
posted by Bee'sWing at 2:06 PM on July 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

Most people don't realize what an awe-inspiring level of investment is required to build even the most modest modern ship. Ships seem mundane; there are tens of thousands of them, they are essential for global trade, and we take them almost entirely for granted. But any particular ship represents tens of millions of dollars in design, construction, and other expenses. When a ship starts to get old the calculus becomes interesting; at what point does the subpar fuel economy and increased maintenance make it a better investment to spend the money on a new ship? And what becomes of the now-obsolete ship?

Actually what happens is often what happens to now-obsolete cars; somebody with the resources to buy but who is looking for a bargain and willing to take a bit of a gamble on unknown future maintenance expenses scoops them up for cheap and continues to run them for awhile. This appears to be Iliopolous' business. But it appears the Brillante Virtuoso was deteriorating a bit too quickly to make back iliopolous' investment in it. This was a bit of a problem because rundown secondhand ships are a bit more expensive to deal with than rundown secondhand cars when they disappoint you. Particularly in an area of the world like Yemen, human life is a relatively cheap thing by comparison. Your car blows an engine, it's a couple of house payments. Your ship blows an engine, it's a couple of houses. Big ones in nice neighborhoods.

The temptation to skip on maintenance is also constant when you are running one of these older tubs. Everything about ships is fantastically expensive, so if you can MacGyver a situation instead of fixing it correctly, you are likely to be handsomely patted on the back by the much richer guy who owns the ship. After awhile these violations of correct maintenance will pile up until fixing everything properly becomes an impossibly burdensome expense. Keeping these ships at sea is the whole business of some countries such as Liberia which specialize in flagging ships without subjecting them to overly picky inspections.

The article says Iliopolous owns eight ships, which makes him a lot richer than me or anybody I know personally but still very much a bit player on the world stage, and it's likely his gambles on those ships have left him very exposed if too many of them suddenly require too much more investment. In much of the world, murder is a lot cheaper to contract out than proper maintenance on the scale of a ship.
posted by Bringer Tom at 2:13 PM on July 29, 2017 [24 favorites]

Fascinating stuff! There's a real modern noir in there, makes me think of William Gibson's Blue Ant trilogy.
posted by rodlymight at 2:23 PM on July 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

Having had the barest interaction with shipping and oil folks the story details certainly ring possible. A pretty significant percentage of the oil business runs on cash and handshake. But keeping a bunch of false stories straight in such a sketchy situation as this story shows is pretty hard. Iliopoulos is probably real careful where he hangs out.
posted by sammyo at 3:07 PM on July 29, 2017

Always amazed at the lawlessness of the open seas . . .

Also, for fans of The Wire I couldn't help but think of this line from The Greek.
posted by eggman at 6:58 PM on July 29, 2017

pile up until fixing everything properly becomes an impossibly burdensome expense.

(see also: washington state ferries)
posted by ctmf at 10:01 PM on July 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

Lloyds' role as a clearinghouse means that members of ill-informed syndicates can lose a lot of money very quickly. I understand the investment model has now changed, but originally an investor was liable to make good claims against their syndicate to an unlimited extent: some investors lost everything. If I recall correctly, at one point there was even a suggestion that smaller investors had been deliberately steered towards the riskier syndicates.
posted by Joe in Australia at 10:48 PM on July 29, 2017

I recommend two books with regard to merchant ships. Looking For a Ship by John Mcphee and The Ordinary Seaman by Francisco Goldman. The first is about the twilight of an era when the American Merchant Marine was a force and unions were strong. The second is a little look into how exploitation goes.
posted by Pembquist at 10:16 AM on July 30, 2017 [3 favorites]

This is the way the world ends, when people live longer for taking pay to not do their jobs.

It makes the term, critical infrastructure, more tenuous. I don't even want to contemplate how this works in the weapons industry, in the drug industry, how this works in the agro-chemical industry.

I still have in the back of my mind the big ship full of Lindane that went down in the English Channel, and how that waits to kill everything that lives in The North Sea.
posted by Oyéah at 12:50 PM on July 30, 2017

« Older Diane Morgan wants you to visit the UK   |   People wonder if she's real. Oh, she's real. Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments