Military and police forces were preparing on Sunday evening to deal with the reported attempted hijacking of a Liberian-registered tanker off the Isle of Wight after stowaways on board were said to have become violent.
Coastguard helicopters were hovering around the Nave Andromeda, a Greek-owned ship, as it pursued a zigzag course several miles beyond Sandown off the eastern end of the Isle of Wight.
At one stage the vessel was said to have anchored in the Channel. Its erratic progress suggested that the skipper may not be fully in control.
The Ministry of Defence initially denied it was involved but there were calls for the Special Boat Service, based not far away in Poole, to be deployed. It is understood that the government has requested military assistance.
The 228-metre tanker had been expected to dock in Southampton on Sunday. Aerial photographs showed it sitting high in the water; it is understood it was due to pick up a cargo of petrol from the nearby Fawley refinery.
Police as well as Maritime and Coastguard Agency staff initially dealt with the incident. A Hampshire police spokesman said: “We are aware and dealing with an ongoing incident on board a vessel which is situated south of the Isle of Wight.”
A coastguard spokeswoman said: “We are currently assisting Hampshire constabulary with an incident on board a vessel situated off the Isle of Wight. The search and rescue helicopters from Lee on Solent and Lydd are in attendance.”
A spokeswoman for Associated British Ports, which runs Southampton port, said it had not had any contact with the vessel. It is understood that the ship had not been refused entry to the harbour.
A formal exclusion zone was established south of Sandown.
The vessel left Lagos, Nigeria, on 6 October. Lloyd’s List, the shipping newspaper, said it believed seven stowaways had boarded the vessel in Nigeria. Their presence had been discovered, but they became violent when the vessel’s crew attempted to lock them in a cabin.
The vessel was reported to have made two stops on its voyage, anchoring off the Canary Islands and off the French coast just south of Saint Nazaire in Brittany.
The Nave Andromeda is understood to be managed by Inchcape and owned by Greek operator Navios Maritime Holdings.
A spokesperson for Hampshire police said: “At 10.04am today [25 October] concerns were raised to police for the welfare of crew on board the Nave Andromeda – a vessel situated approximately six miles off the coast of Bembridge, Isle of Wight.
“The vessel had been travelling in the direction of Southampton. It was reported that a number of stowaways were on board, and they had made verbal threats towards the crew. No one has been reported injured.
“An exclusion zone, with a three-mile radius, is currently in place near the vessel. Police are currently working closely with our partners, including the Maritime & Coastguard Agency and Border Force, to bring this incident to a safe conclusion.”
A UK Chamber of Shipping spokesperson said: “We are aware of an incident onboard the Nave Andromeda off the Isle of Wight and are in contact with the relevant authorities. We believe it is likely to be related to stowaways onboard but are awaiting more information.”
Bob Seely, the Conservative MP for the Isle of Wight, said the incident would be treated as a “marine counter-terrorism” incident and suggested a meeting of the government Cobra emergency committee might be held to discuss the response. That was later discounted by official sources.
Seely said he expected specialist units to be scrambled to handle the situation. He told Sky News: “Despite being told not to drop anchor, the skipper has dropped anchor and the ship may be now under the control of stowaways on the ship.
“I suspect because of the nature of this it will be treated as marine counter-terrorism and the number of people in the UK who do that are very limited and the relevant units will be looking at options no doubt as to what we could be doing.”
Mick Cash, general secretary of the maritime union RMT, said: “We urge the UK government to do all it can to prevent any harm coming to crew or anyone else on the Nave Andromeda.
“This is a troubling incident which must not escalate to further jeopardise crew welfare or maritime safety in what is an extremely busy area for merchant shipping.
“We must call on all parties, including the Greek shipowner to take action to resolve this incident safely and quickly.”