Chinese investors see the Varyag as a floating casino and luxury hotel. To some Western military analysts, it's a potentially lethal, 67,000-ton supercarrier. For many impartial observers, it's a rusted hunk of junk.
But to Joop Timmermans, whose company has towed the partially built Ukrainian aircraft carrier around the Black Sea for 394 days, it's a 1,000-foot whale trapped in a pond with no escape.
That's because the Turkish government considers the Varyag an accident waiting to happen. Maritime officials refuse to allow the engine-less, crew-less and hapless carrier to pass through the Bosporus Strait, claiming it is too big and too dangerous to be towed through one of the world's most congested and strategic waterways. That has scuttled the ship's passage to Macau, in southeastern China, where investors hope to convert it into a hotel-casino.
So a tugboat from Timmermans's company, International Transport Contractors, continues to pull the carrier in big circles around the Black Sea -- to the amusement of passing ships, the annoyance of the Chinese government and the frustration of the tugboat's 18-man crew, which has dubbed the carrier "Alcatraz."
"Yesterday, today, tomorrow -- we're just running around in circles, counterclockwise," Ray Abagatnan, captain of the tugboat Sandy Cape, said in a satellite telephone interview. "Sometimes another ship comes up close to take a picture, and they radio over and ask what I'm doing. A tug pulling an aircraft carrier -- you don't see this anywhere else in the world."
"The situation is a bit boring," conceded Mikhail Arivoruchao, 28, a Ukrainian who has been with the tug since the Varyag's Black Sea odyssey began on June 14, 2000. "I miss my wife and kids, but the Filipino guys on board have a lot of experience at sea, and they say, 'Don't think about it.' Besides, this is my first experience abroad."
The Varyag was to have been the "jewel of the Soviet fleet" when construction on the Kuznetsov-class carrier began in 1985. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, ownership of the carrier was transferred to newly independent Ukraine, where the ship was moored at a shipyard in Nikolayev, on a Black Sea inlet.
Cash-strapped Ukraine halted construction on the vessel in 1992, when it was about 70 percent complete but without an electrical system, an engine or weapons. Left exposed to the elements, it quickly began to deteriorate. In 1998, the ship was sold for $20 million at auction to Agencia Turistica e Diversoes Cong Lot Limitada, a small trading company in Macau, which said it planned to invest $60 million transforming the Varyag into a floating "entertainment center" complete with casino, discos, museum and 600-room hotel.
But something about the development scheme seemed fishy, according to reports at the time. Few people in Macau had ever heard of Agencia Turistica, which had no phone listing and no offices at the supposed address. The company bought the Varyag even though Macau officials had turned down an application to use the ship as a hotel-casino, and the company's top officials reportedly had close ties to the Chinese navy. They also hailed from Shandong province, home to the Chinese navy's North Sea Fleet.
Many analysts concluded that Agencia Turistica was a front for the Chinese navy and the Varyag was China's bid to obtain its first aircraft carrier or a prototype to aid in the design and construction of an indigenous Chinese flattop.
China denied the reports, which experts now consider far-fetched.
"That ship has been sitting around too long in too unclean conditions to be used as an operational warship," said Robert Karniol, Asia-Pacific editor of Jane's Defense Weekly, an authoritative military journal. Furthermore, he said, China could easily purchase the design plans for an aircraft carrier if it wanted to. "China is a sovereign country. It's unlikely they would go through the charade of using a front company in Macau. They don't have to sneak around."
Besides, Karniol said, China shelved its ambition to develop aircraft carriers several years ago, to concentrate on its submarine program.
But that still leaves the Varyag in legal and nautical limbo. The tugboat crew reads books, watches television, and plays chess and basketball while steaming along at about two miles per hour, with the Varyag trailing 2,500 feet behind. About twice a month, crew members take a small boat back to the Varyag and board it for an inspection. On weekends, they drink beer and occasionally barbecue.
It has not been a completely uneventful voyage. Three weeks ago, a helicopter mysteriously landed on the Varyag's flight deck, and three men hopped out and seemed to take a series of measurements.
But by the time the tugboat crew could reach the carrier, the helicopter had taken off, leaving just one cryptic clue to its identity. In blue chalk, someone had scrawled, "The French was here."
Meanwhile, the Varyag circles a sea about twice the size of Michigan while Chinese officials try to spring it loose and Turkish officials block its escape through the Bosporus.
"This is a 309-meter [1,015-foot] long platform, and it does not have any rudder, so it has to be towed by tugboats surrounding it," which would add at least 560 feet to its length, said Ramazan Mirzaoglu, Turkey's state minister for maritime affairs. "In the smallest current, if the boat turns to one side, it will block the entire strait."
"We were cheated by the Ukraine," said a Chinese official, claiming the Macau trading company believed it would have no problem getting permission to transit through the Bosporus when they bought the Varyag. Now, he said, "Ukraine does not want to get involved at all. They got the money, so they are happy."
Timmermans, the managing director of the towing company, said, "When we signed the contract [with Agencia Turistica] we were explicitly told permission was in place to go down the Bosporus, but when we arrived, we were told there was no permission." Now, he said, the holding company has stopped making payments, and it is several million dollars in arrears while chalking up $8,500 in new charges every day the carrier remains under tow.
"We had ships blocked in the Suez Canal during times of war, but nothing like this has ever happened before," said Timmermans, who is confident the Varyag could be towed through the Bosporus without incident.
"Something has to happen," Timmermans said. "This is not our ship, and we can't be stranded with her forever. We could cut her loose, but that would not be appreciated and it wouldn't be professional. . . . She could be anchored, for instance."