The Strange Saga of RCGS Resolute

File image courtesy One Ocean

Published Apr 10, 2020 6:50 PM by Mia Bennett

In the wee hours of March 30, an armed Venezuelan Coast Guard patrol ship fired on and rammed a Portuguese-flagged, Bahamian-owned, Canadian- and German-operated polar cruise ship floating not far from the uninhabited Venezuelan island of La Tortuga. The ice-class vessel survived while the patrol ship sank. All of its crew were rescued.

While the media is covering the bizarre incident at sea as a humorous and wacky story which provides a welcome break from the coronavirus deluge, in fact, the reason why the ice-class cruise vessel was steaming towards the Caribbean involves a long trail of unpaid suppliers, creditors, vendors, and crew members. It also involves hundreds of passengers who are now out tens of thousands of dollars each for luxury polar expeditions.

In other words, the company can’t just be seen as the innocent victim of what some observers interpret as a Venezuelan mission gone wrong.

So just how did RCGS Resolute end up in a pitched battle with the Bolivarian Navy that, as I’ll show, may in fact be a proxy battle for a dispute between Venezuela and Portugal? Let’s start at the beginning.

Resolute’s long voyage to bankruptcy

In 2007, Nova Scotia native Andrew Prossin founded Canadian tour outfitter One Ocean Expeditions to offer luxury cruises to the Arctic and Antarctica. Polar expeditions took place fairly seamlessly for about a decade, and the company grew to be one of the more well-established names in the industry. By 2018, the company decided to expand its fleet from two to three ships, leasing the now-infamous RCGS Resolute. That year, however, problems were already beginning.

In August 2018, one of One Ocean Expeditions’ three leased ships, Akademik Ioffe, ran aground in the Northwest Passage not far from the Nunavut village of Kugaaruk. Nobody was injured and no fuel was spilled. Yet the incident still drew attention to the dangers associated with the rising number of cruise ships sailing through the Northwest Passage.

Then, in December 2018, one passenger aboard a cruise to Antarctica described on Tripadvisor how the ship had been bizarrely unable to refuel in Ushuaia. The snafu resulted in a series of upsetting changes to the itinerary including only 3.5 days in Antarctica instead of five.

“I’m currently on the Resolute’s 12/10-12/20 Antarctica cruise, and it has been an unmitigated disaster…

…we were informed upon our arrival in Ushuaia that the ship did not have enough fuel for our trip, and we would therefore be taking an unscheduled 1.5-day detour to the Falkland Islands to fill up…

…Many of the staff (esp. the registration desk) are unknowledgeable or give outright false information, and the general impression given is of a fly-by-night operation. This is even more galling considering that the owner of One Ocean is on our ship, together with his personal guest Stephen Harper (former PM of Canada).”  - Passenger review on Tripadvisor, December 2018

While Akademik Ioffe‘s grounding and the lack of fuel in Ushuaia may have been freak occurrences, bigger cracks in One Ocean Expeditions’ foundations soon began. In May 2019, the Shirshov Institute of Oceanology in Moscow, Russia recalled the two vessels it normally leased to One Ocean Expeditions through a Cyprus-based vessel management company, Terragelida Ship Management. Since 2011, the two ice-class research vessels, Akademik Ioffe and Akademik Sergey Vavilov, had been leased on one-year renewable contracts.

Why the Russian research institute recalled the two research ships is unclear: they may have needed the ships, One Ocean Expeditions may not have been paying bills on time, or there may have been another reason altogether. While One Ocean Expeditions claims the two vessels had been leased through autumn 2019, the Nova Scotia-based Chronicle Herald claims the contracts were set to expire in summer. Therefore, they may have just not been renewed rather than broken.

Two ships down, the Canadian outfitter was unable to honor many of the expeditions passengers had already booked. This may have posed significant financial problems if, as alleged by the Chronicle Herald, One Ocean Expeditions was using payments for future cruises to cover current bills – including for things like the renovations to RCGS Resolute.

The company blamed its quandary on the Russians, attempted to restructure, and cancelled and rebooked (rather than refunded) passengers on future cruises, leaving many embittered. Meanwhile, crew members were going unpaid, as a Guardian investigation in 2019 revealed, and passengers were missing out on trips of a lifetime.

Arrested in Canada – twice

On August 9, 2019 in Iqaluit, at the end of the “South Baffin Explorer; Art, Culture & Wildlife” cruise and right before the start of the “Baffin Island and Greenland Explorer” cruise, RCGS Resolute was arrested in Iqaluit, Nunavut, over allegations of $100,000 in unpaid bills to a Nova Scotian contractor. In a scene straight out of a movie, the town’s sheriffs and officers went out on a boat into the harbor while crew members sailed up to it in a Zodiac.

The bills were likely paid, as a few hours later the ship was on its way to Ilulissat, Greenland. Following a cruise off the world’s largest island, the ship made a westbound and then return eastbound journey through the Northwest Passage. Yet RCGS Resolute’s life as a cruise ship would not last more than a few more months.

On September 20, a services provider and eight former employees had the vessel arrested again, this time in Halifax, Nova Scotia, over two cases of claims of unpaid bills and wages. Four days later, the bills were paid and the ship began sailing south.

Antarctica or bust

On October 16, at the start of the Antarctic cruise season, RCGS Resolute left on its final expedition - a 19-day trip from Ushuaia, Argentina to Antarctica that cost at least $21,195 per person. Yet supposedly due to problems with obtaining fuel in various ports in Argentina, the cruise was ultimately aborted after a few sailings around the coast.

“One couple in their 80s had saved their whole life for this journey and saved $50,000 to make this happen. And they were in tears," passenger Julie Pierce told The Guardian. 

On October 27, the cruise’s 140 guests were left stranded in Buenos Aires. Two days later, Prossin, One Ocean Expedition’s managing director, sent this explanatory letter:

A letter sent by Andrew Prossin, managing director of One Ocean Expeditions, on October 29, 2019.

Detained in Argentina

The next month in November, the Argentinian government ordered the ship to stay in Buenos Aires over unpaid bills once again. According to Argentinian newspaper Clarín, various companies and crew were demanding millions of dollars in unpaid fuel costs from One Ocean Expeditions. 

Due to the lawsuit in Argentina, RCGS Resolute was unable to commence its planned “photography symposium” 15-day cruise on November 6 from Ushuaia to South Georgia and Antarctica, leaving would-be passengers high and dry once again. One man only found out about the cancellation once he had already boarded his flight to South America. Another individual – an attorney from California, naturally – launched a Facebook group that now has 1,000 members posting complaints and tips daily about how to seek reimbursement.

Ultimately, One Ocean Expeditions cancelled three expeditions in a row last autumn. The company has allegedly refused to refund bookings and instead has recommended that they seek compensation from their travel insurance providers.

Bankrupt in Canada

In January 2020, One Ocean announced it would begin insolvency proceedings. In early March, four months after RCGS Resolute’s Buenos Aires detention, its Bahama-registered, Portugal-flagged shipowner, Bunnys Adventure & Cruise Shipping Co., Ltd. paid $3.6 million to avoid the ship being sold at auction. According to the Chronicle Herald, “two European fuel suppliers, three South American ships agents, and 22 crew were paid as a result of the action.” And so on March 5, debts cleared, the polar vessel began sailing north from Bueno Aires. 

Exactly what happened once it reached the waters around Venezuela depends on who you ask.

On March 29, RCGS Resolute supposedly began reporting that it was not under command while under international waters off of La Tortuga, a pristine uninhabited Venezuelan island. This status means that the ship cannot maneuver, and all other vessels should stay clear.

Sometime after midnight on March 30, the Venezuelan Coast Guard patrol ship Naiguatá spotted RCGS Resolute. While representatives of RCGS Resolute claim the ship was in international waters, Venezuela claims it was in territorial waters. Naiguatá radioed the vessel to find out what exactly a cruise ship – one that was also ice-strengthened, a fact probably not evident to the 42 members of the Bolivarian navy – was doing off the waters of La Tortuga, where yachts are more likely to be spotted than Canadian cruise vessels (and probably very few vessels at all right now given the COVID-19 pandemic).

According to a press release from Columbia Cruise Services, the ship’s Hamburg-based German technical manager, the Venezuelan vessel demanded to learn of the ship’s intentions and then ordered it to follow to Puerto Moreno on Isla de Margarita. While the ship’s master was reconfirming the request with the head office, crew members aboard the 100-m Naiguatá began firing pistol shots at the 122-m cruise ship and rammed its starboard side at an angle of 135°, trying to get her to turn toward Venezuelan territorial waters. A heavily edited clip released by the Venezuela Navy (or, more accurately, the Bolivarian Navy) captures the incident:

The crew of Naiguatá may not have realized that RCGS Resolute had an ice-strengthened bulbous bow. While the cruise ship withstood minimal damage from the scuffle, the Venezuelan vessel ended up sinking. All 44 of its crew were rescued, and the 32 crew aboard Resolute are fine, too. No passengers were aboard at the time.

According to Columbia Cruise Services, as the Venezuelan vessel took on water, the polar cruise ship remained in the vicinity for one hour until it was confirmed that its assistance would not be needed. At that point, RCGS Resolute sailed to Willemstad, Curaçao’s capital, where it remains docked.

RCGS Resolute’s track towards Willemstad, Curacao the morning of April 1, 2020, the day after its encounter with a Venezuelan coast guard vessel near the island of La Tortuga. Map source: MarineTraffic.com

The Venezuelans tell a different story. The official press release from the Bolivarian Navy published on March 31 accused Resolute of “terrorism” and actions that were “cowardly and criminal, since it did not attend to the rescue of the crew, in breach of the international regulations that regulate the rescue of life at sea.” The navy claims that as the patrol ship was sinking, the cruise ship suspiciously turned off its Automatic Identification System (AIS) and then abandoned the site.

A retired naval officer lamented the loss of Naiguatá, explaining rather colorfully: 

“It is not a simple ship, it is a ship 100 meters long, with capacity for 60 crew on board, commissioned in 2012. A ship at sea has no ideologies, nor do they suffer from the evil of Castro-communism. It is a world of dedication, passion for the sea, professional dedication.” - Vice Adm. Jesus Enrique Briceno Garcia, former head of the Bolivarian Navy

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro: I wanted to help

Even Venezuela’s president has commented on the questionable incident at sea. Maduro questioned whether it really was a “peaceful ship” and suggested, “At first I thought it was one of those tourist ships that nobody wants to receive and I gave the order that the ship be received and that they receive all the support.” There are some rumors in Venezuela that the ship may have been clandestinely transporting armed mercenaries to fight against the Bolivarian Republic.

The foreign minister of Portugal - RCGS Resolute's flag state - said the obvious: that there are “contradictory versions” of the incident, and that his country will “obviously collaborate either with Venezuela or with the Netherlands to fully clarify this incident.” 

Portugal, it should be noted, has an ongoing dispute with the Venezuelan government. In mid-February, the acting president of Venezuela who opposes Maduro, Juan Guiadó, boarded a TAP plane from Lisbon to Caracas after talks with European leaders. Maduro claims that his rival – who is recognized as Venezuela’s legitimate president by the United States and approximately fifty other countries – boarded the plane using a false identity while carrying explosives hidden in a pocket flashlight.

The Venezuelan government then prohibited TAP from flying into and out of Venezuela for ninety days, which is a big financial blow to the Portuguese national airline. Ironically, in order to negotiate with the Venezuelan government over the incident, Portugal has now had to recognize Maduro as the country’s legitimate president.

In a press conference, Maduro’s second-in-command bemoaned his country’s “stolen money” frozen in Portuguese banks and said of the country, “Perhaps they still believe we are subjects, that we are a colony and that, as an empire they can give orders.”

So clearly, there is some bad blood between Venezuela and Portugal – enough that may have led Naiguatá to try to humiliate the Portuguese-flagged ship and potentially bring it to shore to be dealt with in what would have likely been a punitive manner by Venezuelan authorities.

RCGS Resolute has ended up in the Dutch constituent country of Curacao wrapped up not only in international financial debacles, but international geopolitical disputes, too. The beleaguered ship somehow may have become a pawn in a proxy fight between Venezuela and Portugal. 

This article appears courtesy of Cryopolitics and is reproduced here in an abbreviated form. The original may be found here

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.