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5 Feb 2013

Further details of S/Y Phocea detainment revealed

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Phocea first arrived in Vanuatu on 15 July and was boarded on the 22nd. Police alleged that the boat was smuggling arms and trafficking guns or drugs and following a search three crew members including Phocea’s captain were arrested. Further complicating the matter, a number of government ministers had boarded Phocea before she had cleared customs. In August thirteen crew members appeared in court and pleaded guilty to charges of breaching Vanuatu’s immigration and custom laws [read more here]. To date nothing related to guns or arms and drugs allegations has been proven, although eye witness accounts in Vanuatu said that guns went ashore in Phocea’s tender prior to the yacht clearing in, although no guns were later found.



According to our source, all was not well even before Phocea arrived in Vanuatu. Registered to multiple countries including Luxembourg, Malta and Vanuatu, rather than the requisite one country of registration, the yacht cancelled its Luxembourg registration prior to going through the Panama Canal. Once the Vanuatu documents arrived, “forged” Vanuatu documents were used to clear out of Panama, into Bora Bora and into Tonga. Our source made the point that it seems bizarre that a yacht would choose to clear into a country used forged documents from the actual country. The maritime lawyer whose signature was forged on the fake documents is now also suing the yacht for libel. Although the yacht claims Maltese registration, Malta is refusing to be affiliated with the yacht, with Maltese authorities confirming that "provisional registration was obtained last year without proof of ownership and other registration requirements," and so the yacht is now stateless.

In another potentially related incident, the 50m Benetti ketch Blue Gold, which was seized by the Vanuatu government for unpaid taxes in 2012 and since released, had expired registration on board which was signed at exactly the same time on the same date as Phocea’s registration. Blue Gold remains under investigation, and a significant amount of money is owed to the yacht’s crew.

The most curious aspect of the entire saga is that despite the yacht being impounded and having obvious difficulties, no contact or attempt at a resolution was made by the alleged owner of the yacht, Thai Vu Anh Quan Saken, who holds a diplomatic Vanuatu passport. There has still been no formal confirmation that Saken is in fact the owner at all, although he filed a complaint against the Ni-Vanuatu police at the end of January 2013, accusing them of confiscating the yacht in order to charge him high berthing fees. He also accuses Vanuatu police of piracy when raiding the Phocea, including wearing shoes on the yacht’s Persian rug interior, although the police have dismissed these claims.

It has also been reported that Saken landed in Papua New Guinea in a private jet after hours at the end of January. Also at the airport was Vanuatu's Foreign Minister Alfred Carlot, one of the ministers who allegedly boarded Phocea back in July, who was there on an unannounced "private mission". Saken was allowed to leave the airport without being questioned, despite the Vanuatu authorities urgently seeking to talk with him regarding Phocea

Little information is available on how the Ni-Vanuatu ministers are involved in the Phocea case, although it is confirmed that Minister Carlot was one of those who boarded Phocea when she fist arrived in Vanuatu. His appearance in Papua New Guinea at the same time as Saken by relation seems more than co-incidental. The Prime Minister Sato Kilman, who is also supposed to have boarded Phocea although this is unconfirmed, issued a mandate of release for the boat some weeks ago, just after Harry Lauko, another minister released the same documents but then mysteriously died of causes not yet confirmed. In another development, Vanuatu’s Director of Ports and Harbours, Mr Morris Kaloran, has recently been suspended from his role. The official reason for his suspension remains unclear but Kaloran believes it is based on his refusal to release the yacht from detention in Port Vila against the government's wishes. According to local media in Vanuatu, Kaloran says that despite his suspension, the yacht's registration and crew documentation remain out of order and therefore the owner of the vessel has a case to answer.

While Phocea has garnered a lot of media attention, issues with superyachts in the Pacific are unusual, and Vanuatu usually welcomes superyacht without trouble. We spoke to Jess and Sam Bell of Kaleva Yacht Services, yacht support agents in Vanuatu, about the impact that the Phocea case has had on superyachting in Vanuatu. They were keen to stress that this is a unique case and that issues with visiting superyachts are extremely rare. “These two yachts [Phocea and Blue Gold] broke many obvious laws,” said Jess Bell. “There’s never been any issue with a superyacht that follows laws coming into Vanuatu. In fact we have found the government here very supportive of superyachts, actively trying to change their charter regulations and provide better facilities.” It must be hoped that yachts considering visiting the Pacific and Vanuatu will not be put off by the Phocea case, which is clearly extremely complicated.

Although some superyacht media have reported the expected imminent departure of Phocea, the Vanuatu Daily Post reports that this is not the case, and dismissed these speculations. “The information supplied has not met the Vanuatu requirement to qualify for rectifying the boat’s defects and the ship will not leave the country as soon as many people had expected,” a reliable source told the Daily Post. And so, at least for now, Phocea remains detained in Vila Harbour on her forged papers, and not legally registered to any state. We will bring further updates on the story as we learn more.

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