Booming containership markets could set yet another benchmark this month, when a 25-year-old vessel that has been idling in Greece since 2017 goes under the hammer.

The judicial sale of the 1,042-teu Mekong Spirit (built 1996) also highlights the plight of its Latvian-born owner, who claims he has been unfairly held in Spain while authorities there investigate the ship for alleged smuggling, even though a Greek court has cleared its crew of any such charges.

The Mekong Spirit will be the object of an electronic auction on 17 November, according to legal documents obtained by TradeWinds.

The minimum reserve price has been set at $2.5m, far above the minimum $1.7m the ship was supposed to fetch in a previous, failed auction in March 2019.

The $2.5m probably remains below what the vessel is worth for scrap, but the price increase most likely reflects sellers' optimism that they can squeeze more value out of it amid a worldwide scarcity for such ships that has sent freight rates soaring.

The Polish-built Mekong Spirit will be sold on behalf of Sweden's SEB Bank, which owns a $56.1m preferred mortgage on the vessel.

Lumar SA, the ship's Spain-based owner, was unable to service the debt after the coast guard arrested it in May 2017 as it was crossing Greek waters, on suspicion that it had violated United Nations and European Union sanctions.

Officials claimed at the time that the ship's captain had failed to inform them about the Sudan-bound cargo of mining explosives, hunting and sports rifles and cartridges.

The ship's detention led to a legal ordeal for its Ukrainian crew in Greece that ended only in 2020 when a Greek court fully acquitted the seafarers and allowed the 64-year-old Ukrainian master to leave the country after three years.

Vindicated, to no avail

The Mekong Spirit has been held at the Greek port of Lavrion since its arrest. Photo: Lavrion Port Authority

The court decision vindicated Lumar, which claimed all along that the cargo was for civil use and fully complied with sanctions.

Greek judges found that the ship's entire cargo, part of which was headed for Sudan, was legal and documented.

According to the verdict, "there was no evidence that the goods transported were going to be delivered to paramilitary groups or rebel groups".

Instead, end-user certificates proved that almost all of the 29 containers headed for Sudan were going to be handed over to a public mining company.

This, however, has not kept Spanish authorities from launching and pursuing a separate investigation into the ship that has led to the long detention there of Lumar's owner and a senior executive.

Speaking to TradeWinds, Lumar manager Boris Lunoff said he spent six months in a Madrid jail before being released. The company's 62-year-old owner, Alexey Dircenko, who is a Spanish national, is still in prison, after more than a year.

Adding insult to injury, the Greek port authority at Lavrion, where the vessel has been held since its arrest four years ago, has served Lumar with a bill over unpaid port charges.