A fire that engulfed a cargo ship floating in the Atlantic for a week straight has subsided, leaving the carcasses of $400 million worth of luxury vehicles behind.
The Felicity Ace’s journey from Germany to the docks of Rhode Island was cut short off the coast of Portugal’s Azores islands last Wednesday when the 656-foot car carrier went ablaze as it hauled approximately 4,000 Volkswagen Group vehicles — including Lamborghinis, Porsches, Bentleys, and Audis — across the Atlantic. As the fire began to spread, all of the 22 crew members on board jumped ship before anyone could get hurt.
It wasn’t until six days later that the fire began to calm after two tugboats arrived from Gibraltar with firefighting equipment to douse the ship in water. Unfortunately for stateside luxury vehicle enthusiasts anticipating their new rides, the fire had likely incinerated every car on board.
Fueling the Fire
It appears the cars may have turned on themselves in this scenario, as Faial port captain João Mendes Cabeças explained over the weekend that lithium-ion batteries of electric vehicles on board were responsible for “keeping the fire alive” for so long.
Since the fire caused no human harm, the Portuguese Navy’s main concern is what kind of environmental impact the burning fuel and car batteries will cause. On the upside, no oil leakage has been detected thus far.
This is by no means the first — or likely the last — time a roll-on/roll-off (RORO) car carrier has caught fire. In fact, fires were the third top cause of shipping losses in the last decade, with 10 “total loss” cargo ship fires in 2020 alone.
Cashing in on Maritime Law
So what is one to do if they find themselves sailing around and happen upon an abandoned vessel up in flames? A viral tweet by @RetroTechNoir set the internet ablaze with the claim that since the ship was abandoned, maritime law says everything on board is up for grabs.
BREAKING: A giant cargo ship “Felicity Ace” is on fire in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
It’s carrying a cargo of Porsche and VW automobiles.
The crew safely abandoned ship in lifeboats. Under maritime law the ship is now “finders keepers.” pic.twitter.com/gHLqHncrOi
— Retro Tech Noir (@RetroTechNoir) February 17, 2022
When considering maritime law, there are two ways to cash in on the unmitigated disaster of a sinking ship: the law of finds and the law of salvage.
Retro Tech Noir’s tweet refers to the prior, which would be an accurate assessment if the Felicity Ace were a shipwreck discovered after several years during which the owners gave up the hunt.
In this instance, the ship is still owned by Mitsui O.S.K Lines. Its contents are still very much of interest to insurance companies and the Volkswagen Group, especially considering it was carrying several high-end, custom models, including rare Lamborghini Aventadors. Enter: the law of salvage, which was created to encourage comradery at seas — in exchange for a reward.
According to this law, anyone who risks their own safety to help a fellow person at sea is entitled to a reward after returning the vessel’s contents to its rightful owner — typically to the tune of 10–20% of the total property value, but sometimes as high as 50%.
With around $400 million worth of vehicles on board the Felicity Ace, salvagers stand to make a pretty penny once the ship is safe to board — about $150 million, to be exact.
Mitsui O.S.K. Lines will allow salvage teams to board “when conditions are safe” with hopes that they can provide more insight into the damage — and hopefully what caused the fire. Two salvage teams are already on-site, with another en route to lend a VERY helping hand.
By Meghan Yani, contributor for Ripleys.com
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