Soviet aircraft carrier Varyag

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Varyag was to be a Kuznetsov-class multirole aircraft carrier. She was known as Riga when her keel was laid down at Nikolayev South (formerly Shipyard 444) on December 6, 1985, and she was launched on December 4, 1988, but she was renamed Varyag in late 1990.

Construction stopped by 1992 with the ship structurally complete but without electronics. Ownership was transferred to the Ukraine as the Soviet Union broke up and the ship was laid up unmaintained, then stripped. In early 1998, she lacked engines, a rudder, and much of her operating systems. She was put up for auction.

In April, Ukrainian Trade Minister Roman Shprek announced the winning bid -- US$20 million from a small Hong Kong company called the Chong Lot Travel Agency Ltd. Chong Lot proposed to tow Varyag out of the Black Sea, through the Suez Canal and around southern Asia to Macao, where they would moor the ship and convert it into a floating hotel and gambling parlor.

However, considerable evidence suggested that the future of Varyag is linked to the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and its program to develop a Chinese aircraft carrier.

Before the auction was closed, officials in Macao had warned Chong Lot that they would not be permitted to park Varyag in the harbor. The sale was carried out anyway. Chong Lot is owned by a Hong Kong firm called Chin Luck (Holdings) Company. Four of Chin Luck's six board members live in Yantai, China where a major Chinese Navy shipyard is located. Chin Luck's chairman is a former career military officer with the People's Liberation Army. It is worth pointing out that it is not unusual in China for a company that is actually involved in tourism or travel to be controlled by former PLA officers.

However, China's interest is puzzling. Due to the poor condition of the hulk, it is thought highly unlikely that the PLAN will commission the carrier; rather, many analysts suggest that the PLAN intends to examine the carrier as a model for an indigenous carrier to be built later. Others counter that the carrier does not represent modern technology; the PLAN could probably have learned all they needed from Varyag without towing it all the way to China.

Whatever plans have been made, in mid-2000, a Dutch tug with a Filipino crew was hired to take Varyag under tow. However, Chong Lot could not get permission from Turkey to transit the dangerous Bosporus strait, and the hulk spent 16 months circling in the Black Sea. High-level Chinese government ministers conducted negotiations in Ankara on Chong Lot's behalf, offering to allow Chinese tourists to visit cash-strapped Turkey if the travel agency's ship were allowed to pass through the straits. On November 1, 2001, Turkey finally relented from its position that the vessel posed too great of a danger to the bridges of Istanbul, and allowed the transit.

Escorted by 27 vessels including 11 tug boats and three pilot boats, Varyag took six hours to transit the strait; most large ships take an hour and a half. The Russian press reported that 16 pilots and 250 seamen were involved. At 11:45am on November 2, she completed her passage and made for Gallipoli and Çanakkale at 5.8 knots. She passed through the Dardanelles without incident.

On November 3, Varyag was caught in a force 9 gale and broke adrift while passing the Aegean island of Skyros. Turkish and Greek sea rescue workers tried to re-capture the hulk, which was drifting toward the island of Evia. The seven-member crew (three Russians, three Ukrainians and one Filipino) remained on board as six tugboats tried to reestablish their tow. However, after many failed attempts to reattach the lines, a Greek coast guard rescue helicopter landed on Varyag and picked up four of the seven crew. One tug managed to make a line fast to the ship later in the day, but high winds severely hampered efforts by two other tugs to secure the ship. On November 6, Aries Lima (reported as both Dutch and Portuguese), a sailor from the tug Haliva Champion, died after a fall while attempting to reattach the tow ropes.

This is an on-going story.