In the sparkling azure waters of Antigua, the gleaming £95m superyacht Alfa Nero could be seen at anchor last week by sightseers enjoying the Caribbean coastline. But few of the tourists who spotted its sleek black hull would have appreciated that it was quite a find.
Since the invasion of Ukraine, the superyacht, which is linked to the Russian billionaire Andrey Guryev, has vanished off the global tracking maps used to locate marine traffic.
An investigation by the Observer this weekend reveals it is one of at least six superyachts linked to UK-sanctioned oligarchs which have “gone dark” on ocean tracking systems. The owners of these yachts will almost certainly realise they are at risk of being targeted in a global hunt for the assets of Russia’s super-rich.
At least 13 such vessels with a total value of nearly £2bn have already been impounded since the invasion of Ukraine, from southern France to Fiji. In the latter case, the superyacht Amadea, allegedly linked to the gold billionaire Suleiman Kerimov, was seized on behalf of the US.
Analysts report an increase in Russian-linked yachts which are turning off the automatic identification system (AIS) equipment used for tracking large vessels. The system can be turned off for legitimate reasons, but experts believe some vessels want to avoid detection.
An analysis by the Observer of AIS data compiled by the maritime and aviation market intelligence firm VesselsValue reveals other superyachts which have “gone dark” for more than a month include:
The 72-metre (238ft) superyacht Clio, linked to industrialist Oleg Deripaska, which sailed from the Indian Ocean to Turkey after the invasion. Its last transmitted location was on 18 April in the Black Sea, within range of the Russian ports of Sochi and Novorossiysk.
The 70-metre Galactica Super Nova, linked to the oligarch Vagit Alekperov, the sanctioned former president of Lukoil. The last transmitted location of the vessel was on 2 March off the Croatian coast.
The 140-metre Ocean Victory, linked to the sanctioned oligarch Viktor Rashnikov, which last transmitted its location at anchor in the Maldives on 1 March.
One member of crew on a superyacht linked to a Russian oligarch sanctioned by the UK told the Observer last week: “We were told to turn off the AIS. We removed the screws on the power plug and pulled it out.”
There are about 9,300 superyachts on the seas, worth more than £50bn, according to industry data. An estimated 10% of that fleet is owned by Russians.
One of the first superyachts to be impounded was the 86-metre Amore Vero, linked to the oil tycoon Igor Sechin, which was seized by customs officers at a shipyard at La Ciotat, near Marseille, on 2 March.
Italian authorities also impounded the 143-metre Sailing Yacht A on 12 Marchin Trieste. It is believed to be owned by the billionaire entrepreneur Andrey Melnichenko. He was sanctioned by the UK on 15 March.
Melnichenko’s other superyacht, the futuristic £240m Motor Yacht A, has disappeared from global tracking system. Its last confirmed location was on 10 March in the Maldives.
The last recorded location of the Alfa Nero on AIS was in the Caribbean on 3 March, when it was anchored at Philipsburg in Sint Maarten. The yacht is operating on a skeleton crew and has put its tender, the Alfa Fish, into storage.
Guryev, 62, a Russian who made his fortune with the Russian fertiliser giant PhosAgro, is reportedby maritime sources to be the owner of the vessel. He was revealed to have bought London’s largest private residence, the 25-bedroom mansion Witanhurst, for £50m in 2008.
He has regularly enjoyed sailing on the Alfa Nero. The vessel is also used by his family, including his son (also Andrey) and his son’s wife, Valeria, who studied at the London College of Fashion and once reportedly stated on Instagram that she was “too pretty for work”. Like many yachts, it is owned via an opaque offshore structure, and Guryev has denied being the owner.
Other yachts which have not been tracked by AIS for more than a month include the Galactica Super Nova, which has a glass-bottomed swimming pool with a waterfall. It left Tivat in Montenegro on 2 March and promptly disappeared off the system.
The Clio, linked to Deripaska, sailed more than 3,000 miles after the invasion, from the Maldives, through the Suez Canal, across the Mediterranean and into the Bosphorus, gateway to the Black Sea and its Russian ports. In the Clio’s case, one reason it may have gone dark could be the perilous situation in the Black Sea arising from the war.
Other yachts which have not transmitted a confirmed location via AIS for at least a month include the My Sky, linked to the cigarette tycoon Igor Kesaev, which last reported its location in the Maldives on 30 March. The Maldives has no extradition treaty with the US, and at least five yachts linked to Russian owners have headed for its waters since the invasion. Other vessels, including two owned by Roman Abramovich, have headed to Turkey.
Under maritime rules, AIS should always be in operation when ships are under way or at anchor. All vessels of 300 gross tonnage and upwards must be fitted with it. A cruising vessel will typically transmit its location frequently, but it can turn the system off when in port. The data is relayed by radio receivers and satellites.
Sam Tucker at VesselsValue said: “There are some vessels where we would be previously getting a signal every few minutes from transponders and we are now seeing gaps of months. It’s very likely that some have flicked off the switch and gone into stealth mode.”
None of the sanctioned oligarchs linked to the six superyachts suspected of turning off their AIS responded to a request for comment.