Shipwrecked and left to their fate
Dr Paul Burt’s phone rang. It was 0200 in the morning. He roused himself from sleep and answered the call. ‘Sir, please help us, we are sinking!’
Some hours earlier, during the afternoon, Dr Burt had driven out to the seaward edge of the Palm Deira, taking emergency food and water supplies to a crew who had called to say that they had been abandoned and their tug had run aground. After a lengthy search all along the breakwater at the edge of the reclamation project Dr Burt finally spotted the vessel. Stopping the car he climbed up onto the rocks of the breakwater to get a closer look. The vessel was wallowing, without power, about 25 meters offshore, partially aground. The bad weather was throwing the tug from side to side and the crew looked and sounded desperate.
But with the vessel not close enough to the breakwater there was no way of getting the supplies to them. Planning to try and organise a rescue by boat the next day Dr Burt drove away having told the crew to hang on as best they could. Then came the panicky phone call during the night.
Dr Burt called the Coastguard and Dubai Police, and between them they were able to rescue the men just before dawn as the vessel finally turned over.
Dr Burt went to Port Rashid Police Station later that morning to see the men and to give them some clothes, shoes and a little money. All they had was what they stood up in, having had to leave their belongings on the sinking ship. Patient interrogation eventually allowed us to find out who the owner of the vessel was. In due course we would confront him with his responsibilities – to pay the men their salaries (they had received no money since joining the vessel 9 months earlier) and to salvage his wrecked vessel. It was his abandonment of the vessel and its crew that had led to their being helpless in the face of the late winter storm.
Having bought the men air tickets to fly home we bid farewell to them some days later. The sense of relief at having played a part in saving these men’s lives was offset, yet again, by the frustration we felt at having to step into a situation that should never have been allowed to happen if the ship owner had managed his vessel professionally and his crew compassionately. Thank goodness for all those people whose generosity continues to allow us to bring help where and when it is needed – especially in cases of dire emergency.
In the steamy heat of summer in the Arabian Gulf air conditioning is essential if crews are to survive the rigours of living and working in such conditions. The crew of a ship in the anchorage off Ajman in the UAE found themselves relying on air conditioning in an even more basic way than usual. They were reduced to drinking the water that is a by-product of the air conditioner’s condenser as it dripped off the casing. The ship had been without supplies for more than two weeks. The agent had not been paid by the owner and the owner was in financial trouble. So the men on board had nothing to keep them alive apart from licking up the water from the air-conditioner and the few fish they could catch.
When the young men of this crew left their homes in Sri Lanka to work as seafarers on board a big ship they were full of hope, and pleased to have landed jobs that meant they would be able to send home significant sums of money to provide for their families. Some months later they were reduced to living like beggars, trapped on board a ship which was to all intents and purposes abandoned.
In Ajman port Fr Nelson Fernandez watched as the truck load of supplies was manhandled onto a small all-purpose supply boat. He had chartered the boat and ordered the food and water and was now going out into the anchorage to deliver the emergency supplies to the crews of five ships. As well as the Sri Lankans about 20 Filipinos were also surviving on fishing and the occasional delivery of meagre supplies from a good hearted agent. Perched between dozens of boxes containing 2 ltr bottles of water, cartons of frozen chickens, trays of eggs, sacks of rice, and boxes containing various sorts of fruit and vegetables he wondered what sort of psychological condition the men would be in.
On one vessel the crew had not received any salary for over a year. Most of that time they were stuck in the anchorage with no means of helping themselves get out of the trap they were in. They made an SOS call to Mission to Seafarers UAE on a phone that had almost no charge and no credit. A couple of weeks earlier they had made a desperate attempt to force a resolution of their predicament by taking the vessel into the port, but the harbourmaster refused to allow them to tie up and sent them back out into the limbo of the anchorage.
When our supply boat drew alongside it was clear that the men were in a poor state physically. Their clothes were dirty and ragged and the vessel was rusty and unloved. Yet the men were remarkably resilient and very pleased to see Fr Nelson and the desperately needed supplies. Unloading was a precarious operation as the swell toyed with our little supply boat. Throwing frozen chickens up onto a ship in the hope that the crew would catch them and not drop them into the sea seemed a faintly surreal way of being an MtS chaplain!
One of the men clambered down onto our little boat so that he could plead with us face to face. ‘Sir, please take us with you to the port. We have been here so long. We cannot survive out here much longer.’ It was not easy telling him that we could not smuggle him and his crewmates past the watchful eye of the coastguard.
As the powerful outboard motors of our little boat took us away from them on our way to the next ship they lined up on deck to wave goodbye, managing to raise a smile or two as we disappeared into the distance, waving in return. Our work on their behalf would resume the following day – calling the owner to persuade him to take responsibility for these men and their livelihoods, to say nothing of the dozens of family members in the Philippines suffering along with them.
As the effects of cheap oil become more and more apparent in the offshore sector of the shipping business the human cost in the industry becomes ever clearer. Offshore supply boat operators have cash flow problems and not enough work to generate income. The first people to feel these effects are the crews, whose salaries are either reduced, or in many cases, suspended. We were delivering emergency supplies to five ships. But there was no doubt in our minds that on board several of the other 70 ships in the anchorage similar desperate conditions were being experienced. We expect to be making such supply runs on a regular basis until market conditions for offshore oil improve.
As we made our way back to port our little craft was empty apart from us and our two man crew. Twenty two knots over the waters of the Arabian Gulf creates enough slipstream to give the impression that it’s not really that hot after all. But as we tied up back at the fish market wharf in mid-afternoon the Arabian summer heat was undeniable. For most of the men that we had seen on those ships in the anchorage a breezy transfer to land is a fantasy mirage. The crushing reality of the summer sauna is all they can expect, until we can somehow broker their release.
You would think that to be a victim of piracy you would have to be captured by a pirate. After all, there are plenty of seafarers who have suffered and continue to suffer that fate. The experiences of Zaude and Jornito, two Filipino seafarers, suggest that things are not as simple as that.
The ripple effect of piracy in the Indian Ocean reached the harbours of the Gulf when the ship that Zaude and Jornito were destined to join arrived at a UAE port. The vessel was an ex-coastguard cutter whose new owners wanted to jump on the anti-piracy bandwagon where serious money could be made in the maritime security business. A contractor was employed to make extensive and expensive alterations to the vessel, turning it into a kind of ‘good guys’ mother-ship, boasting even an operating theatre in which piracy victims could be treated as a result of being rescued by the fast patrol boats lowered from its decks.
However, by the time the configuring work was nearing completion in late 2011 the security climate in its intended sphere of operations looked very different. What seemed like a good business idea in 2009/10 at the height of the piracy crisis off Somalia now looked much less promising as anti-piracy measures taken by ship owners (armed guards, razor wire etc) and governments (convoys, naval escorts etc) led to dramatic falls in the piracy threat. What had been a market full of rich pickings for maritime security firms now looked like an over-fished pond, with ‘security opportunities’ very few and far between.
The opportunistic owners of the vessel responded to these changed circumstances by refusing to pay the contractor for his work. They also quietly dissociated themselves from the vessel itself, having made sure that the secrecy of their own identities was preserved behind ownership documentation which referred to a front man – a man whose business interests centred almost exclusively on the Wild West world of supplying to Somalia anything that a business in a failed state might conceivably need.
In 2012 Zaude and Jornito arrived on board the problem that the anti-piracy vessel had become, replacing as a skeleton crew the full crew who had just signed off. Their responsibilities amounted to little more than watch keeping while the various interested parties argued over what was to become of the failed business venture. As promises of salary and even food and water came to nothing they realised that they had been abandoned as an irritating inconvenience by the front man who was more interested in pursuing his other business ventures.
It was during one of his visits to the port in question that Fr John Van Deerlin of Mission to Seafarers UAE came across Zaude and Jornito and learned of their plight. So began a long story of regular visits (often with food and water), numerous phone calls, and occasional meetings with the ‘owner’, the agent and the contractor by MtS chaplains in their efforts to broker a solution to what seemed to be an intractable problem created by greed, indifference and buck-passing.
After two and a half years of supporting Zaude and Jornito in their ordeal, and pressuring, persuading and even pleading with the principle players a solution started to take tentative form. Could we get everyone to agree that replacement watchmen recruited from Mumbai would replace Zaude and Jornito so allowing them to leave for home? With help from contacts in the shipping world in Dubai and Mumbai two such men were found and agreements were reached to employ (and pay!) them.
Last minute administrative hitches notwithstanding I met Zaude and Jornito at Dubai airport with their tickets in my pocket. It seemed very strange seeing them in a setting other than the depressing emptiness of the ship that had been their prison for more than two and a half years. After several embraces and some excited posing for photographs I watched them disappear through immigration on their way to the departure gate. Still fearful that some final unexpected hitch might yet happen I made them promise to text me when they were on the plane. An hour later my phone ‘pinged’. I opened the message. ‘Sir, we are on the plane right now! Thank you so much sir. We are soooooo happy right now! AT LAST!’
The postscript to this story is that Zaude and Jornito are owed a total of nearly $80,000 in unpaid salary. The only prospect of them getting any of this is if the vessel is sold in order to settle the many debts. Mission to Seafarers UAE has undertaken to represent Zaude and Jornito in the on-going challenge of recovering their money, as we pray that a buyer of this peculiar and troublesome ship might be found. And because they have been out of action for so long their seafarer qualifications have expired and they will have to re train from scratch, at considerable cost. They never went anywhere near Somalia, but they certainly suffered and continue to suffer because of piracy.
Abdullah is a shopkeeper in the city of Port Sudan on the Red Sea coast. His scale of business does not threaten Walmart’s position at the pinnacle of the retail pyramid. However, when it comes to cramming as many different grocery and general household items into a square metre of shelf space as possible he makes Walmart look like bumbling amateurs.
Abdullah has known Mrs Rahman and her family for several years. Mrs Rahman comes in to get her groceries several times a week. Abdullah doesn’t see Mrs Rahman’s husband Abdul anywhere near as often. That’s because Abdul is the 2nd Engineer of a small oil tanker and he is away from home for many months at a time. Until recently whenever Mrs Rahman came into the shop she and Abdullah would spend a while chatting amiably. She would ask him about his wife who suffers from poor health, and he would ask her about her eight school-age children (four boys and four girls, from 15 years down to 7 months).
But a few months ago Mrs Rahman had to apologise to Abdullah for not having enough cash for her purchases. In fact she didn’t have any cash. Her husband’s salary, which supported their family and both sets of grandparents had stopped coming several months ago. The little savings they had were going on school fees. Now she was having to ask Abdullah for credit. Abdullah was happy to provide this while the family was struggling. But now after several months he doesn’t know whether he can afford it much longer. Not surprisingly their conversations are becoming a bit strained.
Brijesh, from Madhya Pradesh in Northern India, is the Chief Officer on the ship whose 2nd Engineer is Abdul. Arunabadhwa, Brijesh’s wife, is to all intents and purposes, a single mother because for ten months of the year Brijesh is away at sea. Their daughter Presha, who is 12 years old, is doing well at school and wants to be an engineer one day. Their son, Punir, who is 6 years old, thinks school is fun some of the time and a real nuisance the rest of the time. Brijesh hasn’t been paid for seven months. When the school fees became due for the current term Arunabadhwa had to use their savings to pay the bill. Unless Brijesh gets his salary they will not be able to pay next term’s bill and the children will not be able to go to school.
When it is working the MV ‘Fateh’, Brijesh and Abdul’s ship, plies the waters of the Gulf carrying petroleum products, usually diesel. It hasn’t worked for many months because its owner is in financial difficulties and cannot pay for its operations. He wants to sell the vessel, and if he can sell it the debts, especially the salaries of the 17 crew, can be paid.
Living conditions on board are difficult. Without fuel to run the generators there are no lights and no air conditioning so it is always very hot and very dark in the inner recesses of what is in effect a detention cell. Living supplies are irregular. The most recent delivery from the agent (a month ago) consisted, bizarrely, or some Arabic bread, some jam, and some mayonnaise! Mission to Seafarers UAE now delivers fruit, vegetables, rice and pulses every couple of weeks.
The crew do their best to keep the ship clean, but it is difficult to remain motivated as far as proper maintenance is concerned. The combination of frustration, worry and anger places them all under severe emotional and psychological pressure. Arguments over petty things punctuate the long hours of inactivity. Of them all Brijesh is the most pragmatic and realistic. He recognises that they may simply have to accept that their chances of being fully paid are almost zero, and that their only pro-active option is to sign off and try and get another job while writing off their salary and the many months on board the ‘Fateh’, putting it all down to painful experience.
The youngest member of the crew is 22 year old Mouvin. Mouvin is from Sudan and is the electrician. Until some months ago Mouvin had never been to sea. His job on board the ‘Fateh’ is his first as a seafarer. Until the end of last year Mouvin worked as an electrician at a factory, earning about $250 a month. The prospect of earning $800 a month (the stated salary) as an electrician on a ship was understandably attractive. In the eight months that Mouvin has been on board the ‘Fateh’ he has received just one salary payment – of just $270. His rudimentary seaman’s training cost several times that amount and now seems like a less than wise investment. Yet his mother, father and two brothers are looking to him as the family breadwinner. He is determined to hold out for what he is owed because to return home with nothing is for him an unthinkable option. But determination may not be enough in the face of cruel circumstances beyond his and his crewmates’ control.
The Diamond Way has been stranded in Jebel Ali since August of 2012. The owners of the company went bankrupt and left a crew of 21 Vietnamese seafarers stranded with no food, water or fuel. The Mission to Seafarers became aware of their situation last October and started providing supplies and weekly visits. Unfortunately, the crew had not been paid for over a year when they became stranded. Imagine, no money to send home to their families and now stranded thousands of miles from home! Several people from the Vietnamese community collected Vietnamese food, books and DVDs to share with the seafarers. A couple of them also visited and gave their mobile number so that the seafarers had a friendly face from their country to call when they wanted to speak with someone outside of their ship in their native language. Finally, the owners of the ship agreed to allow the ship to be sold for scrap so that their debts could be paid along with the seafarers. Good news is that the ship has been sold and the seafarers are on their way home this week. Hopefully, with back pay!
The Ironmonger 3 is a crude oil tanker. The owner recently filed for bankruptcy in the United States. The vessel has been stationary either in or just outsidethe Khorfakkan anchorage off the east coast of the UAE for more than two years. Recently the vessel has come to the attention of both the local and the international media (AP, Bloomberg, 7 Days, Express, etc). Around the beginning of July the UAE office of Mission to Seafarers became involved in trying to meet the immediate needs of the crew who had effectively been abandoned by the owners and managers of the vessel. Seamaster Maritime (of UAE) helped MtS get out to the vessel with emergency supplies (food, water etc). The crew explained that most of them had finished their contracts and wanted to sign off (go home). The two main impediments to this were the fact that the company had not paid them for several months, and a relief crew needed to be found to take their places on board. Somewhat against the odds, a relief crew has been found and all those crew who wanted to sign off have now done so as of 18.8.13. It is not known whether they received the stated 'bonus'. A charterer has been found. The intention, apparently, is that the new charterer will take the vessel into Dubai Dry Dock where necessary works will be carried out prior to re-registration and an eventual return to trading. In the meantime the new crewmembers (10 in number) have joined those who remained on board (4 in number). They have been provided with a good supply of food, water and diesel for the generator. The vessel has been bunkered (fuelled up) and it looks as if its future is now more hopeful. The humanitarian crisis in which the crew found themselves and which caught the attention of the media has, for the time being, passed.