By Shermain Bique-Charles
Antigua and Barbuda could face reputational damage, among other issues, if it doesn’t work quickly to remove the Russian-owned superyacht Alfa Nero from Falmouth Harbour.
The US$81 million boat is reportedly owned by sanctions-hit oligarch Andrey Guryev and is set to be auctioned by the state.
The 267ft vessel has been abandoned since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Prime Minister Gaston Browne said the boat threatens to cause a major catastrophe in the harbour, which could cost the country billions of dollars and cripple the tourism sector.
“Now, this is a vessel that could be unmanned if the government does intervene. Anything could go wrong. Maybe some of the doors could open and start to take on water and it sinks,” he said.
Browne said, according to reports, the vessel is uninsured, posing a risk to other boats in the vicinity. Falmouth Harbour is frequented by some of the largest and most luxurious yachts in the world.
“There could be a fire. In fact, I am told the insurance of the marina could be affected because we have an uninsured vessel sitting in the marina and is a risk to other boats.
“We are talking about billions of dollars of assets in that harbour. And you can imagine if that vessel was to catch fire what will happen.
“Think about the environmental impact, not only in terms of the oil spill and so on, but let us take into consideration that, as it stands now, the sewage system is not working. So, they’re dumping sewage in the water. And that’s one of the areas that we draw water from for the plant. So this issue is a significant threat,” he said.
Browne continued, “The yachting sector contributes more to our economy than even the cruise tourism sector. Understand the reputational damage if we fail to act and we end up with a major catastrophe.”
The PM went on to claim that controversy surrounding the potential sale of the boat is because opposition parties do not want the government to benefit from the proceeds. Government previously declared its intention to keep the bulk of the sale money after paying off the vessel’s debts, which include $500,000 to the Antigua Yacht Club Marina for fuel.
Browne said over a year ago the government had been approached by British and US officials who provided information confirming that the vessel was owned by a sanctioned oligarch and probably still is.
“And they asked us to seize it and we decided not to seize it. I mean, it was detained temporarily for probably about maybe a week or so, no more than two weeks, during which we facilitated a search by the FBI. So, the FBI came, they searched it, and they seem not to have had any further interest after the search,” he said.
Browne said the government is within its rights to sell the yacht.
“We had every right to sell it, but we did not. We waited a year. And part of the reason for that, too, is we didn’t want to become caught up in the geopolitical issues between, let’s say, the Europeans, North Americans, and Russia, even though we stand by our partners in North America and Europe against Russia and the aggression and Ukraine; there is no issue about that.
“But when it came to seizing private assets and so on, we thought that we should exercise a little patience rather than acting too soon.
“But a year has passed. The vessel sitting there is now a significant hazard, a potential security risk. What are we supposed to do? Do nothing now after we would have sold this vessel? What are we to do with the proceeds? Give it to the oligarch? Then the US will sanction us.
“Are we supposed to give it to someone who doesn’t own the boat? Now, I heard this spurious argument is made by the UPP parliamentarians, including [Opposition leader Jamale] Pringle, stating that we should send the money to Ukraine,” he said.
Offers in excess of US$50 million have already been made by potential buyers, one of them a Russian, Browne claimed.
Proceeds from the sale of the Alfa Nero will be placed in a consolidated fund and used to develop Antigua and Barbuda, according to PM Browne.
Meanwhile, Chief Executive Officer of the Antigua and Barbuda Port Authority Darwin Telemaque has said that the Alfa Nero poses serious environmental damage to the country every day that it continues to sit in its waters.
“Our waterways are the lifeblood of the country…if that vessel stays where it’s at, it obviously is going to be challenged.
“If the owner of the marina is unaware of how he will be paid, he is going to come to me…I have to figure out where we will put it…It’s not a toy, it’s not a fishing boat, it’s a massive vessel,” Telemaque said.
He said with limited options, one thing is for sure: the vessel is a hazard to navigation and a hazard for business owners in Falmouth Harbour.
“That area is the busiest maritime space in Antigua and it requires a greater sense of urgency and critical marine management to ensure that we are doing things very safely,” Telemaque said.
Senior counsel Anthony Astaphan also formed part of the discussions over the weekend.
He praised the government for putting the legal framework in place to ensure they are on safe ground to auction the vessel. Last week, Parliament approved amendments to the Port Authority Act to that end.