MV Lyubov Orlova: The 1400-tonne ghostship still unaccounted for

Unofficially stripped of her citizenship and forcefully ostracised into international waters, the Russian MV Lyubov Orlova was set adrift in 2013. The expedition cruiser is yet to be found.

As the rising sun illuminated an endless grey void of North Atlantic waters, winter’s morning hue sketched the haunting outline of MV Lyubov Orlova.

Floating aimlessly and alone, weather-beaten and derelict, the Russian vessel had once been an ambient blend of popularity and success. Now, unmanned and neglected, the only motion that echoed between her empty cabins and dining room was a lonesome wind.

Once radiant with the smell of high-class cuisine and teeming with social life, the MV Lyubov Orlova had become tainted after months adrift. With each passing sunrise, the malodourous blanket of dampness and rust had spread further into her vital core. Her glory belonged to history.

There wasn’t a soul on board. No human presence had been recorded for over two years, but rats had reportedly made themselves at home; feasting on one another.

Along the bow, a ribbon of drip-stained letters showcased the ship’s identity for those who witnessed her delipidated grandeur. Last seen by the human eye on February 23, 2013, the Orlova drifted into international waters and faded over the horizon.

The Orlova had become a modern ghostship, and it was yet to be determined where the tidal currents would deposit her. Attention-hungry tabloids whipped up a subsequent media frenzy, fabricating nonsensical speculation and largely fictitious ‘insider knowledge’ that stirred a now-laughable panic.

Claims that Orlova would bring Russian viruses and man-made diseases to Southern Ireland spilled out across the forum. In contrast, other outlets claimed to have found the wreckage buried on a Californian beach in Coronado. However, it was all untrue.

Regardless of media speculation, MV Lyubov Orlova’s fate is still largely unknown.

What has been determined, from a review published in October 2013, is that EPIRB distress signals were received from grid-square coordinates 1500 miles from Southern Ireland, and roughly 650 miles south of Greenland.

An EPIRB emergency locator beacon activates once a vessel takes on water, or otherwise requires assistance. Relayed as a coded message on the 406 MHz distress frequency, receipt of two distress signals were received, leading experts to believe that the Orlova now lurks beneath the waves.

Her exact location has never been disclosed, but just as she spent her last weeks in solitude, she also sank alone – taking her feverish truth into the abyss.

The MV Lyubov Orlova sat in a Newfoundland dock for nearly two years. Credit: Wikicommons.

What happened to the MV Lyubov Orlova?

Considered a modern-day Mary Celeste, and supposedly infested with cannibalistic rodents, the Orlova had been left to the tidal currents after a run of unfortunate events; spearheaded by the owner’s lack of cash.

Except, unlike the Mary Celeste, we know exactly what happened to the Orlova’s crew; they weren’t paid. Kindly locals even offered food parcels to the men and women working aboard.

For a number of years, the ship’s legal custodians had been skimping on vital maintenance and shunning financial responsibility, yet leasing the vessel out to charter companies for huge sums of money.

This sketchy business method was unlikely to work for long, and in September 2010, MV Lyubov Orlova found herself impounded at St John’s, Newfoundland. Port authorities took action after debts of $251,000 became owed to the charterer – Cruise North Expeditions.

That eye-watering sum was to be returned as a refund for the cancellation of their voyage, largely due to various alarming faults with the ship.

Additionally, the ship’s 51 crew members had not received their wages for five months. The situation had become wrapped in an abundance of political and legal red tape.

Eventually, to settle these spiralling debts, the Orlova was sold to Neptune International Shipping for scrap. It was an unwelcome and ignoble end for a once-dignified ship.

Yet, the story had a surprise plot twist to ensure Orlova’s finale gave birth to an urban legend, rather than violent disassembly in the breaker’s yard.

Lyubov Orlova was Stalin's darling and an icon of Soviet entertainment. Credit: Picryl

Who was Lyubov Orla?

While the ship was bolted together in Yugoslavia during 1976, an elegant name was required to symbolise the vessel’s svelte charm and sleek aesthetics.

Various titles were debated, but eventually, a name was chosen – that of a recently passed Soviet Russian icon; Lyubov Petrovna Orlova.

One of Stalin’s favourite actresses, and a recipient of the esteemed Order of Lenin, Lyubov was born into a family of hereditary Russian nobles.

Having started out as a choir singer and proven herself as an able musician, she married novice director Grigory Alexandrov, who just happened to be casting for his upcoming film - Jolly Fellows (1934).

Alexandrov’s 1934 musical made Lyubov the first recognised star of Soviet cinema, cemented her reputation as a gifted singer, and set the foundations for becoming the first female recipient of the title of People’s Artist of the USSR.

She was the Russian equivalent of Marilyn Monroe, and the ultimate Art Deco posterchild for the Soviet era’s golden-age.

As the ship to bear her name remained under construction, Lyubov’s passing remained at the forefront of Soviet minds. The strong new Russian symbol of shipbuilding prowess was the perfect representative to showcase Lyubov’s legacy as a Soviet superstar, but you won’t find much in the way of Orlova’s recordings out there.

Mainly because there aren’t any. Due to backstage drama and diva-fed politics, Lyubov was banned from making recordings of her popular music.

While the woman’s legacy felt snubbed by contemporary cinematic historians, her ocean-going namesake guaranteed that headlines would blare her name nearly 50 years beyond her death.

The MV Lyubov Orlova rests in Ushuaia after running aground. Credit: Wikicommons

MV Lyubov Orlova: Prelude to an urban legend

Boasting a strengthened bow for brushing aside broken ice, and furnished with trendy batches of oh-so-retro fixtures and fittings, the MV Lyubov Orlova was purposefully designed for tourist expeditions to the poles. As an expedition cruise ship, her hull was constructed to withstand everything Mother Nature held in her arsenal.

Built for the Far Eastern Shipping Company based out of Vladivostock, passengers would sip cocktails in the ship's lounge, as the frozen tundra and gleaming icebergs rotated akin to a background inspired by Hanna-Barbera.

The ship’s career had proven wonderfully successful, and following a refurbishment in 1999, MV Lyubov Orlova was hand picked by Marine Expeditions for cruises to the Antarctic Peninsula. As the new millennium dawned, demand for the ship increased and profits were bountiful.

Extensive renovations were carried out in 2002 when Quark Expeditions claimed the ship’s leasehold, and for a time the ship was shared between Quark and Cruise North Expeditions. It was during this time that the Orlova briefly ran aground near Deception Island.

Rescued by a Spanish Navy icebreaker before continuing to Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego, the ‘beaching incident’ had proven to be a mere blip upon the ship’s otherwise unsullied public image.

However, that was set to change.

The expedition cruise ship in her natural habitat. Credit: Wikicommons

A grand lady abandoned

By the late 2000s, MV Lyubov Orlova was starting to show her age. Management knew that hefty sums would be required to maintain and upkeep her seaworthy condition. That meant substantial effort and financial aptitude would be required.

So they simply chose not to.

Following years of neglect, the derelict ship was then impounded after Cruise North Expeditions were forced to abandon their venture. Due to Orlova’s ramshackle condition, all further trips aboard the Soviet-era vessel were ultimately postponed.

Two years passed while legal mayhem raged behind the scenes, but the ship’s fate was always destined for one thing; the scrapping process. And, as predicted, to counteract the rocketing financial burden, Orlova was sold for recycling.

Eventually towed away from the Canadian port and towards a selected scrapyard in the Dominican Republic, things took a turn for the worse. Only 24 hours after leaving Newfoundland, the tow line between Orlova and her deathly chaperone (Hunt Marine’s tugboat - Charlene Hunt) snapped.

The Orlova was now adrift and rudderless. The tugboat crew tried desperately to resolve the situation, but adverse weather and punishing seas hampered valiant efforts to secure another line.

She had broken free, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. By January 28, 2013, the ship was drifting slowly eastward towards Canada’s Avalon Peninsula.

One of the only known pictures taken of the Orlova adrift. Credit: Wikicommons

Rescue attempts

Although sceptics like to trumpet the ‘insurance scam’ theory, where the ship was deliberately set free to meet her end far from prying eyes, rescue efforts were attempted using an offshore supply vessel – Atlantic Hawk.

Under contract by Husky Energy, and with incredible pulling power, the Atlantic Hawk was tasked with regaining control of the Orlova, which by now had been classified as a ‘risk to oil and gas operations in the region’.

The operation was a success, but then, to the surprise of everyone, the ship was deliberately cut loose. Transport Canada had decided, behind closed doors, to tow the Orlova away from the oil rigs and shipping activity, and dump her in International waters.

"The Lyubov Orlova no longer poses a threat to the safety of offshore oil installations, their personnel or the marine environment. The vessel has drifted into international waters and given current patterns and predominant winds, it is very unlikely that the vessel will re-enter waters under Canadian jurisdiction," the department declared in a public statement.

Transport Canada then cited various safety concerns as their reasoning for abandoning the salvage operation, and reiterated that the owner of the ship was responsible for her movements.

Nobody wanted the responsibility. The vessel had unofficially been stripped of her citizenship, and was now cast out of society to endure the harsh Atlantic conditions. Alone.

That being said, measures were put in place to monitor the ship’s position. Although many considered her lost, people knew fine well where she was. However, unless she posed a problem, nobody was likely to craft an action plan.

Instead, the sea would claim her once the ship’s condition permitted water to breach the hull.

The bow of the Orlova, displaying the original red star, now rests somewhere in the North Atlantic. Credit: Wikicommons

MV Lyubov Orlova: forever lost

According to the National Geospatital-Intelligence Agency, the free-range Russian vessel was clocked roughly 1300 miles from the Irish coast on February 23. Once an alert had been given to smaller vessels in the vicinity, and subject news reports broke across Ireland and Iceland, the media had a field day.

Lyubov Orlova’s name went viral overnight as the ship become the subject of ‘ghostship’ rumours and intrigue. Of course, always keen to push fear-mongering, tabloids approached the subject with their usual finesse – ‘cannibal rats will kill us all’.

Of course, if there were any rodents aboard, they’d have sadly perished when the ship sank, potentially somewhere near the Labrador Sea. And that’s exactly what experts believe happened as, a week after her last publicised location, the vessel's emergency position-indicating radio beacon (EPIRB) was sent from 700 nautical miles off the coast of Kerry.

An EPIRB only starts transmitting once water has engulfed the device, and as the ship’s delipidated condition had summoned the juddering movement of the Doomsday clock, it was only a matter of time before those lonely cabins slowly descended beneath the Atlantic’s blackened surface.

Although nothing official has ever been published regarding the MV Lyubov Orlova's fate, one thing is sure; she's not on the surface anymore.

Rather, her eternal slumber will be spent in quiet solitude, in an unmarked location, unlikely to be disturbed any time soon.

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About Calum Brown

Calum holds a deep interest in all things heritage and remains one of Britain’s most enthusiastic historians.

As a seasoned journalist, he has spent considerable time abroad and relishes all forms of transport. Shipping is in the blood, with a family connection to Stena Line embedded in his DNA. He also refuses to admit that 21st Century music exists.

Calum has developed a skill for bringing history alive, and always insists on making heritage accessible for everyone.