The ballistic missile hit the Rubymar on the evening of February 18. For months, the cargo ship had been shuttling around the Arabian Sea, uneventfully calling at local ports. But now, taking on water in the bottleneck of the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, its two dozen crew issued an urgent call for help and prepared to abandon ship.

Over the next two weeks—while the crew were ashore—the “ghost ship” took on a life of its own. Carried by currents and pushed along by the wind, the 17-meter-long, 27-meter-wide Rubymar drifted approximately 30 nautical miles north, where it finally sank—becoming the most high-profile wreckage during a months-long barrage of missiles and drones launched by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. The attacks have upended global shipping.

But the Rubymar wasn’t the only casualty. During its final journey, three internet cables laid on the seafloor in the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait were damaged. The drop in connectivity impacted millions of people, from nearby East Africa to thousands of miles away in Vietnam. It’s believed the ship’s trailing anchor may have broken the cables while it drifted. The Rubymar also took 21,000 metric tons of fertilizer to its watery grave—a potential environmental disaster in waiting.

An analysis from WIRED—based on satellite imagery, interviews with maritime experts, and new internet connectivity data showing the cables went offline within minutes of each other—tracks the last movements of the doomed ship. While our analysis cannot definitively show that the anchor caused the damage to the crucial internet cables—that can only be determined by an upcoming repair mission—multiple experts conclude it is the most likely scenario.

The damage to the internet cables comes when the security of subsea infrastructure—including internet cables and energy pipelines—has catapulted up countries’ priorities. Politicians have become increasingly concerned about the critical infrastructure since the start of the Russia-Ukraine war in February 2022 and a subsequent string of potential sabotage, including the Nord Stream pipeline explosions. As Houthi weapons keep hitting ships in the Red Sea region, there are worries the Rubymar may not be the last shipwreck.

The Rubymar’s official trail goes cold on February 18. At 8 pm local time, reports emerged that a ship in the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, which is also known as the Gate of Tears or the Gate of Grief, had been attacked. Two anti-ship ballistic missiles were fired from “Iranian-backed Houthi terrorist-controlled areas of Yemen,” US Central Command said. Ninety minutes after the warnings arrived, at around 9:30 pm, the Rubymar broadcast its final location using the automatic identification system (AIS), a GPS-like positioning system used to track ships.

As water started pouring into the hull, engine room, and machinery room, the crew’s distress call was answered by the Lobivia—a nearby container ship—and a US-led coalition warship. By 1:57 am on February 19, the crew was reported safe. That afternoon, the 11 Syrians, six Egyptians, three Indians, and four Filipinos who were on board arrived at the Port of Djibouti. “We do not know the coordinates of Rubymar,” Djibouti’s port authority posted on X.

Satellite images picked up the Rubymar, its path illuminated by an oil slick, two days later, on February 20. Although the crew dropped the ship’s anchor during the rescue, the ship drifted north, further up the strait in the direction of the Red Sea.

Matt Burgess

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