It has been seven months since Vinay Kumar and his crew left the United Arab Emirates after being stranded at Umm Al Quwain aboard an oil tanker abandoned at sea for nearly three years.
When the Merchant Tanker Iba parted from its anchorage in rough seas and drifted onto a public beach in January, it gave the world a rare glimpse of the challenges of life at sea.
The five men spent 43 months at sea – and 32 months without pay – after the tanker’s owner, Alco Shipping Services, fell into a financial crisis. Maritime law states that no vessel can be left unattended at sea, and the men therefore stayed on board, knowing that if they left they would likely not see the $ 170,000 collectively owed to them.
The tanker detached from its anchor and ran aground after strong winds pushed it towards the shallow waters of Umm Al Quwain public beach early one morning in January 2021.
Mr Kumar, 31, and his four colleagues, two Indians and two other Pakistanis and Burmese, remained on the ship in limbo for months as their plea for unpaid wages was resolved by a court in Dubai.
Returning home, Mr Kumar said it had been difficult to readjust to family life.
He was reunited with his wife Pushpa and his two children, Mukund, 3, and Navya, 7, in the small village of Ghnehra, in Himachal Pradesh, an Indian state in the northern Himalayas.
“It was very strange coming home,” said Mr. Kumar, who spoke to The National from India.
“I had to quarantine for 15 days and finally got to see my family.
“Life was very different, there were a lot of changes.
“After we got home, the fight was out of work because of the pandemic.”
“I live in a beautiful mountainous area, but found it very difficult to climb or walk anywhere as I had lost so much physical shape being on the ship for so long.
“It took me at least three months to regain my fitness and I lost weight – almost 10 kg.
“Now I play cricket every day keeping the wicket and feeling great. Before, I couldn’t do anything, not even run.
Abandoned at sea
The crew had been abandoned since 2017 by their employer, Alco Shipping, after the company encountered financial difficulties.
Life aboard the rusty giant tanker with limited rations, clean water and electricity was matched only by the suffering of families left behind with minimal contact with loved ones.
The wife of the second engineer, Riasect Ali, 52, has struggled to pay for cancer care without her husband’s pay.
And the ship’s cook, 26-year-old Monchand Sheikh was forced to call off his marriage and abandon his plan to build a house for his parents.
Meanwhile, Chief Engineer Nay Win, 53, has since returned to Myanmar in the throes of a military coup.
Ironically, after more than three years at sea, he was forced to quarantine himself in an old cruise ship turned into a floating hotel in Yangon before being allowed to return home.
A long-term health problem caused in part by his poor diet aboard the Iba resulted in a long hospital stay and an operation to remove 30 gallstones from his abdomen.
The procedure cost around $ 10,000, much of the unpaid wages that were ultimately reimbursed by the owners of the vessel once the Iba was sold.
Now in India with his young family, Mr. Kumar does not rule out a return to sea.
“I’m waiting for confirmation for a job on a cruise ship, so until then I’m working on my house and the fields,” he said.
“My children are already in school and I paid for a step in their studies.
“I will be more wary of the company I join after what has happened.
“I don’t want to take a percent risk with a new job. I can no longer put my family through all of this.
In 2021, the shipping industry has hit the headlines like never before.
From the giant Ever Given container ship stuck in the Suez Canal disrupting global trade, to the abandoned Mt Iba and skyrocketing shipping costs, the industry has been in the spotlight.
Industry members are hoping 2022 will be the year the world takes notice of those at the center of boating and their safety.
“If 2021 was the year we all noticed sailing, we hope 2022 will be the year we notice sailors,” said Andrew Bowerman, regional director of the Mission to Seafarers charity, a charitable organization. -be who supports the crews in the United Arab Emirates.
“Only a small minority of crews are mistreated, but we will continue to work to improve welfare.
“The big change is the ability for authorities to stop and auction a vessel without having to go through lengthy legal proceedings.
“This should speed up the process of paying crews in the event of abandonment.
“Things could be solved in months rather than years.”
Disrupt the industry
Covid-19 caused huge disruption to navigation in 2021, with tankers delayed from mooring, causing global logistics to shut down.
Ground flights delayed crew changes, causing problems for those stranded on ships and landlocked sailors who needed work to support their families.
“This is an area that needs to be addressed,” said Chris Peters, Managing Director of Marine Logistics at Tristar.
“For every crew stuck at sea for too long, there are more crew who are not working.
“This year has seen improvements, but there is still a lot to do, especially in the Far East.”
Crew changes were the hardest hit in China. Ships permanently trading in the Far East were often forced to sail to India and the Middle East just to change their personnel on board.
“There was recognition of the problems in the United Arab Emirates and it was welcome,” said Peters.
“It is one of the first nations to correctly recognize sailors. “
A new international charter of welfare, the Neptune Declaration on the Welfare of Sailors and Crew Change, established to address maritime issues, has been signed by more than 850 organizations and businesses.
It indicates a brighter future for vulnerable crews, recognizing them as key workers, industry-standard health and safety protocols, and greater collaboration between shipping companies and authorities. It also aims to improve air links between the main maritime hubs for seafarers.
David Hammond, chief executive of Human Rights at Sea, said legislative and policy changes will need to be implemented.
“Without the threat of public exposure surrounding those entities and individuals responsible for human, labor and social rights violations, the system remains weak, insular and open to criticism,” he said.
“The main failure of any new regulatory initiative is that it does not do justice and does not be seen to do justice.
“The biggest challenge with new regulatory regimes is the direct exposure of the shortcomings of victims of blatant abuse.
“They are increasingly finding their voice through media and social media platforms as powerful levelers of weak application systems.”
The United Arab Emirates is a founding member of the Riyadh Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) aimed at ensuring safe, secure and efficient navigation in the maritime jurisdictions of the Persian Gulf.
As a flag state, the United Arab Emirates ranks 21st in the world in terms of fleet size, with more than 20 major ports spread from Fujairah to Abu Dhabi.
“As a signatory to the MLC convention, the UAE is taking proactive measures to protect the interests of seafarers, with the aim of improving the quality of life of seafarers,” said Hessa Al Malek, advisor the Minister of Maritime Transport Affairs, Ministry of Energy and Infrastructure.
“We were one of the first Member States of the International Maritime Organization to designate seafarers as key workers during the Covid-19 pandemic, and have supported seafarers by facilitating safe ship crew changes, by administering vaccinations and giving them access to medical care. “
Update: December 28, 2021, 3:00 a.m.