On the 4th of January 2003, a Taiwanese ship named the High Aim 6 was found adrift off the Western Australian coast near Broome, with the engine running and the propellors turning. Authorities were alerted, and Royal Australian Navy officers from HMAS Stuart boarded the vessel to investigate. They were puzzled – clearly the ship had been abandoned for some reason, as there were no lifeboats or rafts, and no signs of a struggle onboard.
The only indicators that there once had been life aboard were seven toothbrushes and large stores of canned food. A nauseating stench emerged from the hold. It was created by three tonnes of tuna and mackerel, which (as subsequent tests indicated) had been rotting for up to two weeks. Although the boat’s fuel tanks were half-full, the freezer holding the fish had failed when the ship’s engines had stopped.
The vessel was towed to Broome, where Australian Federal Police joined the investigation. Officers, directed by operations coordinator Bill Graham, spent two days conducting tests on the 20 metre long, 150 tonne vessel. They found ‘no plausible reason’ for the absence of the captain, Chen Tai-chen, chief engineer Lee Ah-Duey and the ten Indonesian crew members. A search of the Indian Ocean near where the ship was found by a PC-3 Orion aircraft failed to find any trace of the missing men.
High Aim 6 had sailed from Taiwan, flying an Indonesian flag, on the 30th of October 2002. She was last heard from on the 13th of December, when Captain Tai-chen called the owners of the vessel from the Marshall Islands, which is located halfway between Papua New Guinea and Hawaii. Several weeks of silence followed, and the owners reported the High Aim 6 missing.
Bill Graham said “We can’t say if the boat was hijacked….whether it was steered towards Australia by a second crew, or whether it was on autopilot.” Stefan Frodsham, chief executive of the Port of Broome, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that the ship had probably been attacked by pirates, who killed the crew and set the boat’s engines running to cover their tracks. Others believe a mutiny aboard High Aim 6 led to the untimely death of the captain and the chief engineer, with the crew escaping in liferafts. People smuggling was dismissed as a theory, due to the three tonnes of fish in the hold.
One interesting clue was a series of 87 local phone calls made in Bali, Indonesia with a mobile phone belong to Ah-Duey, the chief engineer. Ah-Duey’s daughter told a newspaper in Taipei that she had rung her father’s mobile phone multiple times between the 27th of December and the 15th of January. She was able to distinguish the strains of karaoke singing several times.
Authorities eventually tracked down one of the Indonesian crew members, who claimed that the captain and engineer had been killed in December, with the crew then returning to Indonesia. The crew member gave no details as to how the bodies of Tai-chen and Ah-Duey were disposed of, where the murders took place, and how the crew managed to make it back safely to Indonesia.
The High Aim 6 sat abandoned on the beach at Broome for 18 months. Hopes that the ghost ship would live on as an underwater tourist attraction for divers, or a fish habitat, were scuppered when authorities concluded that they could not guarantee that once sunk, High Aim 6 would stay underwater because of its buoyant hull. The ship was broken up and buried in landfill.
John Pinkney’s books “Great Australian Mysteries” (Five Mile Press, Rowville, Victoria, 2003) and The Mary Celeste Syndrome (Kindle e-book, 2011) were used as the sources for this blog post.