The lights of the ghost fleet off the coast of Malaysia
About 50 miles from Singapore, the world's largest navy is gathering. It flies no single flag. The fleet's only allegiance is to getting its hulls filled with cargo.
The ships are commercial, stranded by the economic upheaval of the past year. On skeleton crews, they wait for business to pick back up. And wait.
The Daily Mail has the story:
Here, on a sleepy stretch of shoreline at the far end of Asia, is surely the biggest and most secretive gathering of ships in maritime history. Their numbers are equivalent to the entire British and American navies combined; their tonnage is far greater. Container ships, bulk carriers, oil tankers - all should be steaming fully laden between China, Britain, Europe and the US, stocking camera shops, PC Worlds and Argos depots ahead of the retail pandemonium of 2009. But their water has been stolen.
They are a powerful and tangible representation of the hurricanes that have been wrought by the global economic crisis; an iron curtain drawn along the coastline of the southern edge of Malaysia's rural Johor state, 50 miles east of Singapore harbour.
Map of part of the fleet, with ship names. Full version here.
Well shit, that can't be good. The ships are along a sleepy stretch of Malaysian coast, but they're a stone's throw from the world's busiest port. So far, the fleet is standing still, and seems regarded as a symptom of more dire economic issues than a problem in itself.
That could change, however. Right now, the skeleton crews seem terrified of piracy. That is one danger, yes, as their ships would make particularly ripe pickings. The fleet is also an environmental disaster waiting to happen, if frustrated crews just abandon the oil tankers and massive cargo ships.
Of course, they could also turn to piracy themselves.
It would take some coordination and a culture shift (most of the crews are from a merchant background, not naturally prone to violence), but desperate times do desperate things. Even a portion of the fleet could seriously impede Singapore's shipping if they were positioned just right.
That mercantile city-state has a particularly good, well-equipped navy, and it would doubtless have allies, but the sheer numbers would be hard to overcome. Boarding and seizing that many ships would be risky. Sinking them would also be a catastrophic blow to shipping operations, making the nearby waters less navigable.
This scenario may be unlikely, but it's not impossible. There are a lot of desperate people in that fleet and I'd bet that some of their plans might be turning to a darker cast right now.
On a related note, this is a reminder of how, despite the march of technology, something as old-fashioned as boats hauling cargo on water remains absolutely vital to the world economy. We often think of goods as just arriving in their places by magic, but there's a vastly complex network behind every single item. When those begin to break, something big's about to happen.