April 17, 2019

Did you hear the one about a Russian Yacht circling Puerto Rico, like a shark with lasers?

Dateline November 17, 2017: The Bermuda-flagged super-yacht "Eclipse" sailed into The Port of Palm Beach Florida. Eclipse is Roman Abramovich's yacht; and he's a very rich Russian with ties to Vladimir Putin, so naturally rumours started to circulate among a faction of people, who were still in shock over Donald Trump's election win. One of the stories was about clandestine meetings at Mar-a-Lago; Russian yachts moored off the coast, and their "oligarch" owners slipped in to shore, maybe under the cover of darkness. It was a great story to lift the spirits of those who felt they'd lost the election, and helped smooth over any criticism of Hillary Clinton's election loss. The Russian yacht-clandestine meeting narrative would fan the flames of the story it was the Russians, not the American voters, who were to blame. The yacht story would also prove to be quite absurd.

"don’t get all collusion-delusional"

-Tony Doris, Journalist with the Palm Beach Post covering the last yacht story

As reputable media organisations reported, Roman Abramovich wasn't on his yacht in Florida in 2017.
  • That's what his publicist said.
  • That's what the press said.
  • That's what I said.

Why? How can I be so sure? Because there were no helicopters, no fast cars, no entourage, no limo... and no Roman. Where Roman Abramovich goes, so does the Paparazzi. There were no Paparazzi staking out the ship, because Roman Abramovich wasn't there. Some people wanted to believe the yacht, owned by a rich Russian, was a sign of Russian influence. The yacht was parked for weeks at the end of 11th Avenue in Palm Beach, having preparations done for its usual winter season spent in the Caribbean. Unfortunately, the yacht's presence was all the evidence some people needed. Believing the yacht's owner is nearby may be a good guess for someone's weekend cabin cruiser, it doesn't scale to the mega-rich, with yachts that are the size of cruise ships.

Despite the rumour not being even remotely plausible, let alone true, the story plays to a crowd who would very much like to believe Russian yachts are following the President of the United States up and down the United States East Coast, and somehow meeting with him, despite closed airspace overhead, and secret service agents hiding in the bushes. Mega-yachts of the rich and famous are not following Donald J Trump around. The story is quite ridiculous, and easily shown to be false; all multi-million dollar yachts have AIS transponders, all are tracked, but the rumour has staying power, because people want to believe it. It is quite impossible to smuggle a Russian billionaire into the USA using a yacht that's worth hundreds of millions of dollars unnoticed.

Skip ahead to April 2019, and another (in)famous Russian's yacht sailed into a US harbour, this time, into the Port of San Juan; Andrey Melnichenko's super-yacht "A" - to a crowd of impressed onlookers.


Since Donald J Trump isn't in Puerto Rico (I hear he's not popular with the locals for some reason), how can this non-event be spun to be something nefarious and Russian-y? The rumour is the yacht stopped near a dozen different American military bases in Puerto Rico, the insinuation is they are conducting SIGINT/ELINT/COMINT/(etc); someone even made a list of the bases... but it's not entirely as it seems; it's a truism. Truisms make great springboards for propaganda, especially when people don't understand they're truisms to begin with.

Picture a rectangular dining table, standing on four legs. In your imagination, walk around the table. Now picture the headline as; "Suspicious person seen circling 4 table legs; citizens monitoring situation for signs of vandalism." It misses the obvious, an uses exaggeration for effect; but it's still the same story, phrased differently; spin, propaganda, disinformation - whatever you want to call it.

I want you to think about this. I invite you to look at a map of Puerto Rico. Answer me this; in what direction can you sail around the island, approaching from the East, and loop around the island (ending up heading East again, like a horse shoe) without passing "near" a dozen military bases? Do you sail around the island clockwise, or counterclockwise, to avoid the bases? What do other yachts do? What's is the baseline from which you determine that this trip is at all unusual or out of the ordinary.

unknown source, picture making the rounds with the rumour
I hear Puerto Rico is lovely, but it isn't very big. All of the military bases are close to shore if not on the shore. No matter where you are in Puerto Rico, you're already near a US military base. Even using terms like nearby and close are subjective, and could be an attempt to make the claim impervious to criticism. These are the usual wiggle-words that we, the consumers of propaganda, need to be on-the-lookout for. Additionally, the claim doesn't elaborate regarding the speed or where the ship stopped; it is only referred to as circling the island, and stopping near bases, which is true, they did sail around the island counter clockwise. If they had sailed around the island clockwise would that have avoided scrutiny? My point in pointing out the absurdity of these allegations is they're totally baseless. As a truism those that make the claims can say they're factually correct; and they are. There was a big yacht, owned by a Russian (not a Russian yacht - there's a difference), that sailed around the island of Puerto Rico, as it had previously done around many other Caribbean islands. There's nothing weird or nefarious about it. It's the same route taken by millions of other ships before them, and completely unrelated to Venezuela; which is a new red herring that could have been thrown in by the Venezuela regime change propaganda campaign for all I know.

MarineTraffic.com AIS-T and AIS-S Tracking Data

Using MarineTraffic.com data of the ship's movements shows their pattern of movement matches what you'd expect the route would be for any incredibly expensive yacht; they're sailing from beach to beach, Caribbean vista to Caribbean vista. Overlaying that they're stopping near American military bases is true, but only because Puerto Rico has so many military bases; it's a truism. Every ship that circles the island or stops anywhere near Puerto Rico is "near" a military base.


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