Abandoned Ships: Part 1

When seafarer Mehmet Gulsen stepped on board the Kenan Mete, he thought he was signing up to a pretty standard 7 month contract, and then he’d be home in Ukraine with his young daughter and his dog. But a few months in, things started going wrong, and he ended up abandoned with his crew at a port in the Suez Canal, with no idea when they’d be able to go home.

This week on Kerning Cultures, of the strange legal limbo that allows seafarers to wind up abandoned and unable to leave their ships… sometimes for years at a time.

This episode was made in collaboration with 99% Invisible. Check them out wherever you get your podcasts. It was produced by Alex Atack and edited by Katie Mingle, with additional support from Dana Ballout, Zeina Dowidar, Nadeen Shaker and the whole 99% Invisible team. Dilara Çelik provided translation support and Onur Akmehmet was the voice of Mehmet.

You can find a transcript of this episode at our website.

Support this podcast on patreon.com/kerningcultures for as little as $1 a month.



Dana Ballout: Hey, this is Dana Ballout and you’re listening to Kerning Cultures. Stories from the Middle East and North Africa, and the spaces in between. Today we have a special episode, it’s a story that we’ve been working on for quite some time in collaboration with one of our all time favorite shows; 99% Invisible, presented by Roman Mars – who you’ll hear first. Here’s the episode.

Roman Mars: This is 99% invisible. I’m Roman Mars,

Andy Bowerman: Just on the horizon — you probably can’t quite make it out — is Sharjah.

Roman Mars: This is Andy Bowerman, recording himself with his phone, as he stands on a cargo ship off the coast of Sharjah, a city in the United Arab Emirates

Andy Bowerman: It’s in some ways an idyllic setting. It’s 40 odd degrees, sea is calm, the sky is blue.

Roman Mars: Andy is the regional director at an organization called Mission to Seafarers and part of his job is to deliver things like rice, blankets, water, and SIM cards to workers who are trapped on abandoned cargo ships.

Andy Bowerman: It is literally me and typically one of the members of our team on a small speedboat, and pulling up alongside, and climbing up a 15-foot rope ladder to get to the ship.

Roman Mars: In some cases, the people that Andy tries to help have been stuck on these abandoned vessels without enough supplies for months or even years.

Andy Bowerman: And we’re loading provisions yet again onto this vessel. It’s been here now for more than two years. You know, we’ve all been on lockdown around different parts of the world. Just multiply that by 10 and you’ll get a sense of what these guys are facing all the time. I mean, I would sometimes say it’s like prison, but you don’t know how long the sentence is.

Alex Atack: Right now, there are about 50 of these situations on the International Transport Federation’s official database, but a lot of these cases go unreported and so the real number is probably much higher.

Roman Mars: That’s producer Alex Atack, who brought us this story from the podcast Kerning Cultures.

Alex Atack: Andy works mostly in the United Arab Emirates. But there are abandoned ships all over the world, particularly in the Middle East. And the people on them do describe feeling like they’re in prison, surrounded on all sides by water and unable to leave because of the strange legal no man’s land that exists for workers on these ships.


Alex Atack: This is Mehmet Gulsen. He spoke to us in Turkish and we had an actor voice his lines in English.

Mehmet Gulsen (via translator): On December 17th, 2019, I joined the ship. The ship that I stayed on as prisoner.

Roman Mars: When Mehmet first boarded a cargo ship called the Kenan Mete in 2019, he thought he was signing up for a pretty standard seven-month contract. Then he’d be back home with his four-year-old daughter and his dog,

Alex Atack: The Kenan Mete employed 24 other seafarers, that’s the industry term for these cargo ship workers. And Mehmet was third in command just below the captain and the first officer.

Mehmet Gulsen (via translator): At first, everything was good. I had everybody’s support as my crew. Everybody followed me.

Roman Mars: Hierarchies are actually a crucial part of what keeps work running smoothly on a ship. The crew is in a constant battle to keep seawater from eroding the vessel, and they work in a grueling schedule — cleaning, painting, and derusting everything — and then doing it all again.

Alex Atack: Mehmet had no idea the calamity that was in store for him. But in retrospect, there were a few red flags, like sometimes the workers didn’t get paid on time and the ship, which was built in 1990, was a little rundown.

Mehmet Gulsen (via translator): It was an old ship. It wasn’t a very well-kept ship from the beginning. It was in bad shape.

Roman Mars: And then on what was supposed to be the last leg of Mehmet’s trip, the ship pulled into a port at the mouth of the Suez Canal in Egypt with around 7000 tons of cement to deliver.

Alex Atack: But when they arrived at the port, they were told by the staff manager that the owner of their ship, a Turkish company called Blodwen Marine S.A., didn’t have the money to pay their salaries or the port fees — and that they’d have to wait.

Roman Mars: Mehmet hadn’t been paid since January and now it was June. So he and some other crew members decided to protest by stopping a lot of the basic maintenance work that they were doing to keep the ship in reasonable shape.

Mehmet Gulsen (via translator): They told us, “Look, this will bankrupt us, what you’re doing. The owner is in a situation where he can’t pay his debts. Don’t do this.”

Alex Atack: Mehmet says that the owners made various threats in text messages to the crew.

Mehmet Gulsen (via translator): They said these things aren’t easy, you’ll be left in a very bad situation in there. Of course, they threatened. Also, they did a lot of ganging it up. They sent the Egyptian Port officials on us. They told us if you stop work, we’ll declare the captain, the second officer, and the head engineer as terrorists. We’ll charge you with terrorism and throw you in jail.

Roman Mars: Eventually, though, the owners just went silent. They stopped communicating with the ship entirely.

Mehmet Gulsen (via translator): They started not answering our calls. So they left us. They abandoned us.

Laleh Khalili: They become abandoned because that word abandoned actually takes on its real meaning. Nobody cares about them and they are truly abandoned by their state, by everybody else.

Alex Atack: This is Laleh Khalili, a professor of international politics at Queen Mary University in London. She just finished writing a book about the shipping industry in the Gulf called “Sinews of War and Trade.”.

Alex Atack: “I mean, this is kind of like a very basic, maybe stupid question, but like, why can’t they kind of just get off the ship at the port?”

Laleh Khalili: “It’s not a stupid question at all. So there are several things. One is that international treaty obligations require seafarers to stay with the ship for safety reasons, et cetera, et cetera. And if they get off the ship, they actually forfeit their wages. So in many instances, seafarers end up having to stay on the ship if they want to be able to get paid.”

Alex Atack: Ship abandonment tends to happen with smaller companies operating on really tight profit margins, they run into financial trouble and suddenly they can’t come up with the money to pay the costs involved in running a ship — fuel, port fees, and seafarers’ salaries.

Roman Mars: Generally, seafarers can make anywhere from $500 to $6,000 a month. It’s more than most of them feel they can make in their home countries, which is why they’re willing to put up with a job where they won’t see their families for months on end. And a lot of seafarers take out loans against the money they expect to earn working on ships. So in some cases, they start these contracts already in debt.

Alex Atack: Beyond wanting to wait on the ship to hopefully eventually get paid, Laleh says that a lot of countries just won’t allow these abandoned seafarers to come onto land.

Laleh Khalili: If they’ve not been paid their wages and if they don’t have a ticket home, that means that essentially these are going to be people that are abandoned indigents in a state that doesn’t probably want to support them.

Roman Mars: Essentially, no one wants to claim responsibility for these abandoned crews. And when the owners disappear, it can be hard to figure out what higher entity to appeal to because the ships are often flying what’s called “flags of convenience.”

Laleh Khalili: I mean, it’s a terrible thing, but essentially what it is intended to do is to avoid regulation and to avoid any kind of good service or virtuous treatment of the environment or the workers.

Alex Atack: Until the 1920s, ships generally had to follow the regulations on working conditions and pay and taxes according to their country of origin. So a British ship flying a British flag, they’d follow UK laws. American ship, American laws. But in the American prohibition in the 1920s, ship owners started to realize that they could evade US laws against transporting alcohol if they registered their ships in Panama. And by doing it this way, they also avoided a bunch of US taxes and minimum wage requirements. More and more ships started to do the same. And so, flags of convenience became a thing.

Roman Mars: Today, around three-quarters of ships worldwide fly a flag of convenience. It isn’t illegal to do this. It’s not even really a loophole. It’s just a norm in the shipping industry. The only ships that don’t do it are the ones that do most of their business in the US and Europe, where there are stricter rules.

Alex Atack: In Mehmet’s case, his ship, the Kenan Mete, was owned by a Turkish company but was registered under a Panamanian flag.

Roman Mars: Blodwen Marine S.A., the owner of that ship, doesn’t have a website. They aren’t listed in directories so they’re basically unreachable. And by the middle of June of 2020, they’d completely stopped communicating with the crew.

Alex Atack: But Mehmet thought, surely the owners aren’t just going to walk away from their ship.

Mehmet Gulsen (via translator): At the end of the day, the ship was worth around 2 or 2 and a half million dollars and what we were owed was about $120,000, so we were thinking they will give us our money. Then when the company stopped answering, we thought they were bluffing the first month.

Alex Atack: The crew sat on the ship and waited, hoping for some kind of resolution. As June rolled into July, things got harder and the weather got hotter.

Mehmet Gulsen (via translator): The time wouldn’t pass on the ship. It was really hard. It was unbelievably hard because you can’t go out. You’re always in the same quarters. And then even if you got out, it was really hot. I mean, really, we experienced summer heatwaves there. So the humidity, the damp, the filth.

Roman Mars: The crew couldn’t go on to land, but they could see the shore of Egypt shimmering on the horizon.

Mehmet Gulsen (via translator): Where we stopped, there was the desert. What can I tell you? I mean, there was nothing beautiful about it. Nearby there was a soil that has the raw material of cement. There’s a lot of that in Egypt, so there were mining that in the mountains and they were always doing some explosions with dynamite. Like sometimes when the wind blew, the dust would get really bad. We will be all be covered in dirt.

Alex Atack: The crew kept trying to contact the ship owners to no avail. They also contacted the company that had ordered the 7,000 tons of cement on that ship to see if there was anything they could do. But that didn’t help either. Eventually, they also reached out to some of their own consulates in Egypt. For Mehmet, that was the Turkish consulate, but no one would help.

Mehmet Gulsen (via translator): As it kept on dragging on, we started to understand the seriousness of the matter.

Roman Mars: The crew didn’t realize it at the time, but they were entering into a kind of sunk cost black hole. The more time that passed, the more they felt like all that time would be wasted if they got off the ship now without being paid,

Alex Atack: If they could wait, there was a good chance the insurance company would pay out or the owners would be taken to court and forced to pay their salaries. This had happened in abandoned ship cases before, but it’s impossible to know how long it might take and whether waiting is the right decision.

Andy Bowerman: And it can quickly escalate to go beyond 3 to 6 months to 12 months, two years. And it’s absolutely incredible how often that seems to happen.

Alex Atack: That’s Andy Bowerman again from Mission to Seafarers. Andy wasn’t involved with Mehmet’s ship because it wasn’t in the geographic area where he works. But he’s seen these cases go on for a very long time.

Andy Bowerman: Once it becomes a stalemate, the crew say, well, I can’t go home with nothing because I’ve now waited 12 months, 24 months

Alex Atack: Besides delivering basic supplies to abandoned ships, Andy also tries to track down the owners of these vessels to get them to take responsibility for their crews. But he doesn’t have a ton of tools at his disposal, just the phone and emails. So it can be a very slow process.

Alex Atack: What do they say? What is their defense?

Andy Bowerman: I have definitely had cases where I’ve sat in a meeting with an owner-

Alex Atack: This was one specific case that happened last year with an owner in the United Arab Emirates.

Andy Bowerman: And he has made it absolutely clear that the seafarers are the last thing he’s thinking about. He is worried about the mortgage that he has, other creditors that he has to pay, and he almost said — and he didn’t quite say this, but almost — the seafarers are just a commodity, as with everything else, that needs to be sorted out.

Roman Mars: By August of 2020, things had gotten more dire on Mehmet’s ship. They couldn’t pull into port to restart provisions without paying the port fees, which they didn’t have, and they were running out of food. The crew was rationing.

Mehmet Gulsen (via translator): So we were distributing the food one by one. And you get three apples, you get three apples, you get two pairs, I get one cucumber. It was it came to that level. I mean, in the end, there’s a saying — all problems on the ship start from the kitchen. It’s really true. Hunger’s, as you know, is the beginning of everything. I mean, people were at their boiling point. Fights were starting to come up even from, why did you look at me that way, why did you look at me this way?

Alex Atack: Mehmet said, eventually, the official hierarchies on the ship broke down. It didn’t matter who had been in charge before. There was a new order beginning to form.

Mehmet Gulsen (via translator): The superior-subordinate relationship, it was, uh… we lost that. And then racial grouping started. Everybody was hanging out with their all nationalities. And at the end there were groupings in between those racial groups. I mean, the Indians had different groups amongst each other. The Turks had different groups amongst each other. The Ukrainians had the same, so on. So we kept on being more divided.

Alex Atack: By this point. Mehmet did want to leave the ship. He was like, I don’t care what happens to my salary, I just want to be off. But no one would join him and he was scared he might be put in jail. He couldn’t face going through that alone.

Mehmet Gulsen (via translator): I didn’t want to do anything alone because I didn’t know what will happen to me if I was alone. I mean, I couldn’t take the risk.

Roman Mars: Still, he constantly and obsessively thought about getting off the ship and concocted some irrational plans.

Mehmet Gulsen (via translator): It will get bad. You get so suffocated on the ship, you start not being able to think logically because your psychology deteriorates so much. You’re thinking, what can I do?

Alex Atack: There was a beach about three miles away that he thought about swimming to or when other Turkish ships came by, he thought about somehow jumping onto one of those and stowing away. But he didn’t.

Mehmet Gulsen (via translator): I was talking to my family — my sister, she was stopping me. And my friends were like, there is no need. Just hang on a bit longer. This, too, shall pass, kind of thing. And they supported me, my friends and my family, thanks to them. I mean, that’s how I hung on

Alex Atack: The crew of the abandoned Kenan Mete did also have support from one organization who first heard about their case shortly after they were abandoned.

Mehmet Gulsen: Let me switch off my mobile. Switch off this mobile because it never stops.

Alex Atack: Wait, why? What’s going off on it?

Mohamed Arrachedi: It’s messages. Messages, requests from seafarers for assistance.

Alex Atack: This is Mohamed Arrachedi. He’s the Arab World and Iran coordinator at the International Transport Workers Federation, the ITF — which is basically a labor organization that offers help where it can to abandon seafarers. While Andy is often on board with cruise offering supplies and moral support, Mohammed is more focused on the bureaucratic end of the problem. He spends his days in an office, doggedly phoning and emailing ship owners, and organizing legal cases against them.

Mohamed Arrachedi: Honestly, every day I’ve got a good and big list to tackle.

Alex Atack: When we spoke, he just got back from dropping his kids at school and part of his routine each morning is to sift through all of these messages – abandon ship cases where he’s been asked to help – and figure out what he can do. But obviously, he can’t deal with all of them at once.

Roman Mars: Like Andy, Mohamed tries to reach out to the owners of these ships. And when he can’t, he’ll start putting pressure on whatever country the ship’s flag represents. But he hits a lot of dead ends or people saying that they’ll look into it, but nothing happens.

Mohamed Arrachedi: You insist that these people, these seafarers have no water. This is emergency. And you still receive that “we are looking at it and that someone will be in touch with you.” So whose responsibility is this?

Alex Atack: Where Mohamed first heard about Mehmet’s ship, the Kenan Mete and all of the crew abandoned on it, it was June of 2020. He reached out to Blodwen Marine S.A., which owned the ship, and he said that initially they were somewhat responsive. Eventually, though, they completely dropped off the radar and Mohamed didn’t hear from them again.

Roman Mars: Luckily, the ship had insurance and Mohamed started lobbying them to help.

Mehmet Gulsen (via translator): ITF put pressure. By putting pressure on the insurance company, they got us four months of pay. IDF did that.

Roman Mars: Mohamed got the insurance to cover basic supplies for the seafarers stuck on board and four months of lost wages for the crew, around $120,000 in total. But when he began to arrange for the seafarers to go home, he ran into a wall of complications from the Egyptian port authorities. They didn’t want to risk the ship being left in the port unmanned and totally abandoned, because then it’d become their problem.

Alex Atack: Ultimately, Mahmet’s ship’s case went to court in Egypt. Mohamed’s organization, the ITF, appointed and paid for their lawyer.

Roman Mars: And then, after seven months of Mohamed and crew trudging through this bureaucracy, hundreds of phone calls and WhatsApp messages, court dates and dead ends and a few false starts, it was decided that most of the seafarers should be allowed to leave in phases.

Alex Atack: Mehmet gives a ton of credit to Mohamed and the ITF for finally getting them off of the ship.

Mehmet Gulsen (via translator): I mean, if it wasn’t for ITF, we would probably have been doomed. Maybe I’ll still be there. Maybe I would have to stay for another six months.

Roman Mars: In the last week of December, right before Christmas, Mehmet finally stepped off the Kenan Mete in Egypt and got on a flight home to surprise his family.

Mehmet Gulsen (via translator): I didn’t want to get their hopes up. So not to destroy their hopes, I didn’t tell them. I made it a surprise.

Roman Mars: Eventually, all but one of the crew members on board the Kenan Mete were repatriated to their various home countries. But the situation still hasn’t been totally resolved. Because of the rules in Egypt, the captain is still there, but he has been moved to a hotel near the port.

Alex Atack: Mohamed told me the captain won’t be able to go home until the ship has been auctioned off to a new owner, a process that could take several more months.

Roman Mars: These days Mahmet is trying to figure out how to earn a living in Odessa, Ukraine, where he lives. If he can possibly avoid it, he never wants to set foot on another cargo ship again.

Mehmet Gulsen (via translator): After all this happened, I’m going to do whatever I have to do as far as I can. I’m not thinking of going back to ships. I have aged three, five years. I mean, I feel that. I know that, too. Before I joined the ship, I was really good. My appearance, stuff was good. But after I went through like this, I feel like I got old when I look in the mirror.

Alex Atack: Mehmet’s case was actually not as drawn out as other people I spoke to for this story. There was Vikash who spent nearly three years on a ship off the coast of the United Arab Emirates before he could get off. And Samig, whose crew was stuck off the coast of Beirut for over a year. And in that case, they were living on a ship that most of the time had no electricity.

Alex Atack: Andy from Mission to Seafarers told me that one reason all of this takes so long to resolve is that the owners are trying to get the best price possible when they sell their ship because they owe so many different people money.

Andy Bowerman: What sometimes happens is they say, well, the market’s depressed at the moment, but markets do fluctuate so if we wait another six months, perhaps the market will improve, and therefore we can get more for our ship. And they tend to not think about the crew who will have to sit on the ship floating during that period of time.

Alex Atack: Andy’s working on a new law in the United Arab Emirates that would give port authorities power to take ownership of a vessel 60 days after abandonment. That way they could auction it off and the seafarers could go home much quicker.

Roman Mars: If countries can enact regulations that ban things like flags of convenience and strengthen labor unions, that will also help ship abandonment cases go down. These are the kinds of things that have already made abandonment relatively rare in Europe and the US.

Alex Atack: But until more of those bigger structural changes occur, the work for people like Mohamed and Andy will happen one ship at a time.

Andy Bowerman: Here we are, just a few miles out on yet another abandoned vessel and we’re just going to meet a couple of the crew. We’re going to have a cup of tea with them or drink some coffee or, you know, a glass of cold water and just remind them that people are still thinking about them.

Roman Mars: This episode was produced by Alex Atack and edited by Katie Mingle. Onur Akmehmet voiced Mehmet’s interview. Special thanks to Charles Maynes and DIlara Celik. This episode was made in collaboration with Kerning Cultures, that’s Kerning with a K. It’s a podcast that makes audio stories like this one from the Middle East and North Africa. When we come back, an abandoned ship starts a chain of events that ends in a huge tragedy.


Roman Mars: So producer Alex Atack is back and he’s going to tell us how the massive explosion in a port in Beirut in August of 20 was connected to an abandoned ship.

Alex Atack: Yeah. So in November 2013, an old rusty, worn-out ship called the MV Rhosus arrived at the port in downtown Beirut carrying about 2750 tons of this highly explosive fertilizer called ammonium nitrate.

Roman Mars: Yeah.

Alex Atack: So not long after it arrived at the port in Beirut, the ship was impounded by the Lebanese port authorities because basically, it had quite a lot of things wrong with it. A few crew members had to stay on board because as you know, as we mentioned in the story, it’s not legal for seafarers to just get off these ships and leave whatever is on the ship, like unattended or unmanned, as they call it, in the port.

Roman Mars: Right.

Alex Atack: And so eventually, the ship’s owner — this Russian guy called Igor Grechushkin — he went dark, stopped replying to emails, didn’t answer phone calls.

Roman Mars: Yeah. As they do.

Alex Atack: Yeah, as they do. Here’s Laleh Khalili, who heard in the story.

Laleh Khalili: Actually, the seafarers end up sitting on that ship for something like 10 months with all of that ammonium nitrate, essentially on a floating bomb.

Roman Mars: Oh, my God.

Alex Atack: Yeah. And then after a court case, the ship’s crew were eventually allowed to leave and they flew back home to Ukraine, which basically left the Lebanese authorities in charge of the dangerous cargo. And it was moved into a hangar in the port.

Roman Mars: So the cargo was moved. But what happened to the actual ship itself?

Alex Atack: Yeah, so the ship just fell into disrepair like it stayed where it was in the port and sank. Because as we mentioned in the story, like ships need this, you know, they need this kind of round-the-clock labor force constantly maintaining it to keep them in good shape. And if they don’t have that, they’ll sink really quickly.

Roman Mars: That’s amazing. I didn’t know that the war on entropy was so constant and unrelenting. I mean, you mention it, but like, really, it just takes a few years and a ship just goes straight down.

Alex Atack: Yeah, I had no idea about that either.

Roman Mars: So the ship is at the bottom of the port, but all the, you know, explosive ammonium nitrate is in a hangar.

Alex Atack: Yeah. Just kept in a hangar in the port. It’s sat there basically for seven years unattended and I mean, pretty much forgotten about except for a small number of port officials and port staff. And there were warnings that it wasn’t safe for it to just be sitting there in the state that it was in. And those warnings were constantly ignored by the authorities.

Roman Mars: Yeah, and it was not safe at all.


Alex Atack: August 4th 2020, a small fire broke out in a hangar nearby where the ammonium nitrate was being stored. It made its way into the hangar and the ammonium nitrate caught fire and exploded. It was an incredibly powerful blast. About 200 people died and thousands more were injured. It basically leveled the whole part of the city near the port. There were reports that the blast tremors were felt as far away as Cyprus, which is about 150 miles away from Beirut.

Roman Mars: Wow. I mean, it’s incredibly awful. And I was… I guess I didn’t really know that it started with an abandoned ship. You know, I had heard about the ammonium nitrate being stored. I knew that that was unsafe, but I didn’t know why.

Alex Atack: Yeah. I mean, obviously, this is like a worst-case scenario, but I think it really does illustrate why port authorities don’t want the crew to leave these ships on land, because then the ship and everything on it really does become their responsibility to deal with. And I mean, in this case, obviously, they did an awful job dealing with it, but it was their responsibility nonetheless after the crew left.

Roman Mars: Yeah, I mean, it adds a whole new element to the consequence of this abandoned ship story that what’s on the ship, you know, could be really dangerous. And it has to be dealt with with those countries. And so you kind of understand their position a little bit more as to why they can’t just take on whatever is left for them by some unscrupulous ship owner.

Alex Atack: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely.

Roman Mars: So after this Beirut explosion, did that change a little of the dynamics of the abandoned ships?

Alex Atack: It definitely brought a lot more attention to the plight of other crews who are abandoned on ships. And also just like the issue of abandoned ships in general. From what I can tell, it hasn’t led to any material changes in legislation in Lebanon or elsewhere in the Middle East to kind of help stop abandon ship cases before they happen.

Roman Mars: Thank you for bringing this story to us, Alex. I really appreciate it.

Alex Atack: Thanks, Roman.

Dana Ballout: This episode was produced by Alex Atack and edited by Katie Mingle from 99% Invisible, with editorial support from me Dana Ballout, Nadeen Shaker and Zeina Dowidar. A special thanks to Joe Rosenberg, Vivian Le and Roman Mars. If you don’t already, you can subscribe to 99PI or 99% Invisible, wherever you get podcasts – it’s such a beautiful show.  We’ll be back with a new episode next week. Thank you for listening.