4 May 2013

Phocea finally leaves Port Vila amid questions over boat's registration

7:43 am on 4 May 2013

Police and customs officials in New Caledonia are preparing for the arrival of the superyacht, the Phocea, which left Vanuatu on Thursday after being detained for nearly ten months.

The vessel, which is currently rented by the controversial Vanuatu honorary consul Pascal Anh Quan Saken, entered the country's waters without proper clearance last July.

Police and Customs officials inspected the vessel, suspecting it carried contraband.

Although no contraband was found, false documentation for the crew and no legitimate registration for the boat meant the Phocea had been detained by Customs officials until now.

Johnny Blades has more:

Vanuatu Customs officials were this week directed by the new government of Moana Carcasses to release the boat whose links to various politicians played a part in the downfall of the previous government of Sato Kilman.

The clearance was based on registration issued by the New York office of Vanuatu Maritime Services Limited, echoing two recent failed attempts to grant the boat provisional registration.

Sources within Customs indicate the department is unhappy at being forced to accept the registration.

The former Finance Minister Charlot Salwai, who objected to the previous registration attempts, says the office which granted the latest registration is just a business and does not represent the authority of Vanuatu.

He says the fact remained that the Phocea entered Vanuatu illegally and outstanding issues remain.

"In that case we should seize the boat and it should be as simple as that. But how it was dealt with, it was collecting almost everyone inside the story of the Phocea. For me, it looked like our laws are weak and I do understand that some departments like Ports & Marine and Customs are not... would not be really happy."

A Vanuatu maritime figure who claims to be the Deputy Commissioner of Maritime Affairs, Captain Guy Benard, has been instrumental in securing the release of the Phocea.

A French journalist who has been following the case of the Phocea, Christophe Gargiulo says Guy Benard has an interesting history.

You know the guy who did this is very known for his criminal activities in Vanuatu so I wouldn't give a lot of credit to this (the registration). He pretends he's a technical advisor at the Vanuatu Maritime Authority but the VMA died a few years ago because there was a conspiracy case initiated by the State Law Office against Guy Benard and other people involved in it, and there was such a mess on this court case that it was closed. But Guy Benard pretended that there was another little working cell still existing and he's acting as a technical advisor with this.

Reports in Vanuatu indicate the Phocea is heading to New Caledonia to be surveyed by maritime experts.

Christophe Gargiulo says that officials in Noumea are waiting for the schooner.

The French police and the French customs have been following the story since the beginning, and they're a bit worried about this Saken personality and they are also a bit worried because a few hours ago the Phocea cut its tracking device so they don't know where it is actually.

Captain Benard told local media that the management of the Phocea is going to sue Vanuatu authorities who were responsible for the degradation of the condition of the vessel while in detention.