Abandoned Ships: Part 2

After their employer abandoned the vessel they was working on, Vikash Mishra and his crew spent nearly three years stuck on a slowly sinking ship off the coast of the UAE. This week on Kerning Cultures: Vikash’s ordeal, and how he eventually made it back home to his family in India.

This is the second of two episodes about ship abandonment in the Middle East. Listen to part one here.

This episode was produced by Alex Atack and edited by Dana Ballout, with additional support from Zeina Dowidar and Nadeen Shaker. Fact checking by Tamara Juburi, and sound design and mixing by Alex Atack and Mohamad Khreizat. Ayushi Shah provided additional production support in Mumbai. Special thanks to Martha Schlee.

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

Transcript

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[INTRO STING]

DANA BALLOUT: Last week, we brought you a story that we made in collaboration with the podcast 99% Invisible, about the growing problem of ship abandonment in the Middle East. If you haven’t heard that episode, I’d suggest you go back and listen to that first, it’ll help explain some of the context for what you’re about to hear.

There’s a lot of complex inner workings to ship abandonment, but to be super simplistic about it, its when a ship owner can’t afford the costs of running their ship anymore – so, port fees, fuels costs, staff salaries, or any combination of the above, and so they just go dark. In these situations, they’ll often stop communicating with the crew, leaving them stuck on board.  

So, there was this moment during the episode last week when Andy Bowerman – he’s regional director of Mission to Seafarers in the UAE, an organisation that helps seafarers out after they’ve been abandoned by their owners – when he started telling us about a particularly bad case that he worked on in the UAE recently. So bad, that it became a trans-national crisis.

ANDY BOWERMAN (VIDEO): So just on the horizon, you probably can’t make it out, is Sharjah.

DANA BALLOUT: This is from a video Andy filmed while he was working on this case. Sharjah is one the United Arab Emirates, the UAE’s, biggest cities. 

ANDY BOWERMAN (VIDEO): One of the wealthiest cities on the planet, and yet here we are, just a few miles out, on yet another abandoned vessel.

DANA BALLOUT: In 2018, Andy started providing assistance to a crew – which meant driving a small speedboat the 25 nautical miles or so out to this massive cargo ship, and handing off basic aid to a crew of 9 seafarers, who, in the end, were stuck on board their vessel for 39 months.

ANDY BOWERMAN (VIDEO): Its a strange sensation really, its in some way an idyllic setting, its 40-odd degrees, the sea is calm, the sky is blue, and we’re loading provisions yet again onto this vessel which has been here now for more than 2 years.

DANA BALLOUT: The ship was called the MV Tamim Aldar, and it was travelling from Fujairah in the UAE, to Iraq. but soon after leaving, their engine broke down off the coast of the UAE. They asked the ship owners for help and they said they’d send someone. But, they never did… and the crew started to realise that they had been abandoned.

The situation on board got more and more serious as their abandonment dragged on for months, and then into years. It was one of the most severe cases of abandonment that Andy has worked on.

ANDY BOWERMAN: They had very little fuel, so they were running almost entirely on blackout. So no air conditioning. You know, through the summer, that’s pretty tricky. It’s 45 degrees here.

DANA BALLOUT: Until eventually, they decided to take matters into their own hands.

ANDY BOWERMAN: they physically abandoned the ship, which meant they got in the life pod and came towards shore.

DANA BALLOUT: And what happened to them after they jumped ship… well that’s our story today. In last week’s episode went into the loopholes that allow for seafarers to fall into this kind of legal limo. And this week, really, it’s a story about what happens when those processes break down in the extreme. about one crew who were forced into an unimaginable situation, and what they had to go through before eventually making it back home.

I’m Dana Ballout, and this is Kerning Cultures, stories from the Middle East and North Africa, and the spaces in between. 

Our story today comes from producer Alex Atack.

ALEX ATACK: okay, now I see  your video but – hello?

VIKASH MISHRA: Hi, sir, yes sir, I can hear you.

ALEX ATACK: Hi Mr. Vikash, how are you? 

VIKASH MISHRA: Good evening sir.  

ALEX ATACK: This is Vikash Mishra, he was the second engineer on the MV Tamim Aldar – that’s the name of the ship that ended up getting abandoned out off the coast of Sharjah for nearly three years.

VIKASH MISHRA: So my duty was basically to, I was overall in charge of machinery space. So I am responsible for the all machineries, and I’m answerable for chief engineer, whatever his command, I have to do that.

ALEX ATACK: I spoke to him over Zoom from him home in Mumbai, he’s got two young kids who were on vacation and were running in and out of the room while we were doing our interview. He’s 36 years old now, and has been working as a seafarer for around 15 years, mostly around India.

VIKASH MISHRA: Never I face any problem, but unfortunately in my last company had some trouble and all.

ALEX ATACK: In October 2016, he took an 8 month contract to work on board the Tamim Aldar, it was his first time working in the Middle East. And he told me that they were contracted to pay him $2500 a month, which is a little less than he had earned on other ships, but he was training for a engineering exam, and this gig would’ve been good experience for that. He was supposed to be home by April 2017.

VIKASH MISHRA: Yes, actually my plan was to come back and either April or May, max to max. And that time my daughter, she was eight months old. So it was difficult to go, but because as a mariner, life is like that only that. But it was difficult and that’s why my plan was that only six to seven months I will work and I will come back. Then I will spend some time with my family, and after that, I’ll go for my exam and all.

ALEX ATACK: So he got his visa sorted, flew out from Mumbai to Bahrain, where he met the rest of the crew and boarded the Tamim Aldar. And he said, at first, he didn’t feel like anything was wrong or unusual.

VIKASH MISHRA: Actually when I joined that time, vessel was looked like new. So vessel was looked like new, means all painting and everything they have done.

ALEX ATACK: But after they set off into the Gulf and down towards the UAE, he told me the crew started to notice small things weren’t right – for instance, the bedding they’d been given was old and heavily used.. The crew’s accommodation wasn’t as clean as it should’ve been. This is from a video Vikash recorded while he was on board. The job they’d been contracted or chartered – that’s the term they use – to do was to deliver shipments of construction stone between Fujairah in the UAE, and Iraq.

So this is the kind of stone that goes into building bridges, pavements, roads, it’s a raw material that you probably don’t think about a lot – but like, 90% of the stuff that surrounds us everyday, it gets to us on board a ship.

Over the next few months, between October and April, they made this trip four times. As a round trip it’d take around 15-20 days. For the first couple of months, things were fine. The ship wasn’t perfect, but he was getting paid, and anyway, his contract would be up in April. But then the company, they were called Elite Way Marine services, started behaving weirdly… delaying the crew salary payments, promising they’d pay the next month, then the next month.

Then in April 2017, when Vikash’s contract was due to finish, they asked if he could do a few more charters – a few more trips between Fujairah and Iraq. 

VIKASH MISHRA: So we loaded our cargo and we were going to discharge it in Iraq, but in between, our tiller shaft got damaged. in Hamriya –

ALEX ATACK: They had a fault with the tiller shaft which, without going into too much detail, is basically the piece of machinery that steers the ship.

VIKASH MISHRA: And because of that, we are unable to move our vessel. So we dropped our anchor, I think 27 or 28 nautical miles away from the shore.

ALEX ATACK: When the tiller shaft broke down and they weren’t able to repair it, the crew got in touch with their company, basically to let them know, and the company told them they’d helped them sort it out asap. But two weeks later, they still hadn’t, and the crew were starting to run out of supplies.

VIKASH MISHRA: So we understand that now situation of company is not very good and it is going to be abandoned.

ALEX ATACK: That’s when they contacted Mission to Seafarers, where Andy works, and they started to help them as best they could. Every couple of weeks, two staff members from the group would make the trip out to the abandoned vessel – about 25 nautical miles off the coast of the UAE – to deliver basic supplies, so rice, blankets, water, SIM cards, etc.

ANDY BOWERMAN: It is literally me and typically one of the member of our team on a small speedboat pulling up alongside and climbing up a 15 foot rope ladder to get to the ship.

ALEX ATACK: This is Andy again, regional director at Mission to Seafarers.

 And when you’re a man of my age and lack of mobility, that’s quite a daunting experience I can tell you.

ANDY BOWERMAN (VIDEO): The crew also have those same mixed feelings – delighted that we’re here to bring fresh vegetables and water and chicken, but also saddened that after a number of weeks have passed they’re still here, still hoping that the owner, the authorities, somebody will make sure they get what is rightfully theirs, that they’ll get some justice.

ALEX ATACK: Every now and then, the crew were able to contact their families with the phones Mission to Seafarers gave them, but without their paychecks coming through, their families back home sank into debt. 

ALEX ATACK: So when did you first contact your family to tell them that you were abandoned and what was that conversation like? What did they say? 

VIKASH MISHRA: Actually, I didn’t say that we are we are facing abandonment to our family.

ALEX ATACK: Oh my gosh. 

VIKASH MISHRA: I just, I said that okay, wait, just wait. I will come, company have some problem. Our tiller shaft are damaged and we are not getting berth to go to shore side, and we are getting our salary timely, but the problem is how I can transfer that salary because they are giving us cash in hand.

ALEX ATACK: Can I ask why, why didn’t you want to tell your family the truth that you were abandoned?

VIKASH MISHRA: Unnecessarily, they will get panicked. Already they were in panic because we are able to send them money and we are unable to communicate even daily.

ALEX ATACK: You just didn’t want to worry them. 

VIKASH MISHRA: Yes. That’s why we are not informing them.

ALEX ATACK: As the months went on and he still wasn’t coming home, Vikash eventually had to tell his family what was really happening. He told them a year after he’d left home. Mission to Seafarers arranged a one-time donation of $1250 for each of the seafarers’ families, but obviously, that money didn’t last very long. Vikash told me his family burned through their savings over the first year of his abandonment, and when that was gone, they couldn’t afford rent on their apartment, or his son’s school fees.

VIKASH MISHRA: I borrowed so much money with my relatives and friends. So again, to ask them that please provide us someone some more money, it was also very embarrassing.

ALEX ATACK: And, as the situation dragged on, the conditions on board just kept getting worse. They were anchored near a shipping lane, and they couldn’t keep their lights on 24/7. So at night, they were just surrounded a heavy blackness. The only light was the little pinpricks in the distance from the skyscrapers along the UAE’s  coastline.

VIKASH MISHRA: we can see that Burj Khalifa. Slightly dim, but we can see Burj Khalifa.

ALEX ATACK: In the day, they’d pass the time by keeping the ship as clean and maintained as possible with the few tools they had. And, they still had their shipment of stone on board, so sometime they’d try to count them all, or figure out which one was the biggest.

VIKASH MISHRA: I think one stone is a more than 10 ton, 20 ton, like that.

ALEX ATACK: Sometimes they’d play cricket on the ship‘s deck.

VIKASH MISHRA: But playing cricket also was not easy because it was in, we are in mid sea. So if we [lose the ball] it will not return back. 

ALEX ATACK: So you had to be careful not to not to hit sixes.

VIKASH MISHRA: No we made ball by rope.

ALEX ATACK: Oh I see. Ingenious. 

ALEX ATACK: On the ship, their daily routine was; wake up with the sun, around 5 o’clock, then start to think about food. So, often this meant fishing over the side of the boat and eating whatever they could catch. If there was cleaning to be done, they’d do that together, and then they’d do whatever minor repair work they could to keep the ship from sinking. He told me that whatever they did, they tried to do it as a team.

VIKASH MISHRA: It was more than three years for me. So to cut our hair, it is also very big task. So of course in our first aid kit, there is a one scissor was there. So we saw that, okay, where is the scissor? Then we are cutting hair off each other. So slowly, slowly, everyone is a, become a barbers.

ALEX ATACK: Vikash told me that when they had fuel, they’d try to run their generator for 4 hours a day to make food and pump out the excess water that was gathering on the floor of the deck as the ship began to deteriorate. But it kept getting worse, and at one point, the ship began to take on water and started listing – or leaning to one side.

ANDY BOWERMAN (VIDEO): You probably can’t tell from this, but it is listing quite badly – it’s rusty.

VIKASH MISHRA: It was very rough. So when the rough weather hits, the side of the ship, the water come across the deck. So it, it is not safe at all to be on board and even we don’t have diesel it is very difficult because ship can sink anytime.

ALEX ATACK: After the break, Vikash and his crew drop their lifeboat… and try to escape to land.

[MIDROLL]

ALEX ATACK: When we left off, the MV Tamim Aldar was listing, and getting more dangerous by the day.

At night, they were scared the ship was going to capsize, and because of the bad weather, Mission to Seafarers couldn’t deliver them any new supplies. Their situation was deteriorating quickly now and they had a short window to act, So on the first calm day, they decided to drop their lifeboat, which was this tiny, orange dinghy with a roof – which, in itself was in really bad shape – and just head to shore.

VIKASH MISHRA: It was very scary, but we don’t have any option, we thought it was the best way.

In a letter before they left to the UAE’s federal transport authority, they explained why they were doing it, to paraphrase: The company wasn’t paying any attention to us, to solve the problem – both the main generators weren’t operational, and the main engine also failed. The vessel was listing, and it was a danger to of our lives. We’re depressed and helpless and company aren’t giving us any option except to abandon the vessel, so we’re going to Umm Al Quwain harbor. Kindly meet us when we get there.

ANDY BOWERMAN: But, they were picked up just off of shore by the coast guard, who took them ashore, gave them a nice meal, but during the meal kind of said them well you have a choice. We can’t allow you to leave 10,000 tons of ship unmanned at anchorage. So we have to detain you if that’s what you’re saying you want to do, because that’s illegal. Or you can go back to the ship. 

ALEX ATACK: They didn’t have a choice. They say the coastguard told them they’d face up to two years in prison if they left the ship unmanned – although the Federal Transport Authority deny this. Or… they could go back, and carry on waiting.

So they were driven back to the ship on a small launcher boat by the UAE authorities. But they’d managed to draw attention to how dire their situation was, 

What followed were month of complex negotiations between the Federal Transport Authority and the ship owners, which the crew still got support from Mission to Seafarers. 

They stayed on the ship for another 6 months. And then eventually, after the Guardian covered the story and the case got some media attention, the shipping company agreed to pay up to 80% of the crews wages. Vikash was owed around $78,000 US dollars – he ended up getting paid 80% of that, and then, the crew went home in phases – the people who stayed there longest, Vikash was one of them, were there for 39 months in total.

VIKASH MISHRA: When I come to know that now I’m going to come Mumbai. So I informed my wife first. I said, okay, I’m coming.

ALEX ATACK: He told me that when he arrived at the airport, his kids actually didn’t recognise him at first. He’d been gone so long, and they were so young and used to only seeing him through a blurry WhatsApp video call. But also, he looked totally different.

VIKASH MISHRA: Yes. Yes, of course. When I joined actually my hair, you can see, it was not like that before when I joined. Due to seawater, we are taking shower in sea water. And there is a no proper hygiene. So the problem was because of that my face also changed a little bit and my beard all started white – before it was fully black.

ALEX ATACK: Right now, Vikash has been home for just over a year, and he told me that he’s training now for his next qualification in engineering.

ALEX ATACK: So you will go back and work on ships?

VIKASH MISHRA: Actually my plan is, I will join back, but I will ensure that it is, I’m not going to join again in Gulf area. I will join in India only.

ALEX ATACK: But does the idea of being on a ship again, does that – how do you feel about getting back onto a ship, is that scary or does that feel strange?

VIKASH MISHRA: Actually now I’m not worried because now I have as much experience that nobody can trap me again.

ALEX ATACK: In the case of the MV Tamim Aldar, the crew’s proactive campaigning for their rights, and Andy Bowerman’s help were the key to them getting home with their wages. Vikash told me they probably would’ve had to go home without pay if Mission to Seafarers hadn’t stepped in.

But, all of this isn’t technically Mission to Seafarers’ responsibility. At least it shouldn’t be. The crew’s wellbeing is the responsibility of the ship’s owner or the flag state – and we talked about all of the problems surrounding that in the previous episode.

In the few years that Andy has been doing this with a focus on the Middle East, the number of abandonment cases have been steadily going up. He’s been in the UAE two years, before 2020 his average case load was around 60 seafarers at any one time. In 2020, it’s been more like 150 to 200. And the situations that turn into crises are becoming more common.                   

I spoke to the UAE’s Federal Transport Authority for this story, and they told me that they’re working on a new law that would make it possible for the UAE authorities to take control of the ship and auction it off – in theory, that’d make it much quicker to resolve abandonment cases, and crews wouldn’t be forced into the kind of situation Vikash was in. But that law is yet to come into effect. 

The UAE has just introduced a law which makes it mandatory for shipping owners to have insurance to cover their seafarers wages, in case they run into financial trouble like Elite Way Marine services did.

But, right now as I’m speaking to you in May 2021, there are currently 8 crews – made up of around 130 seafarers – abandoned on ships off the coast of the UAE.

DANA BALLOUT: We tried to contact the company who owned the MV Tamim Aldar for this story – Elite Way Marine Services – but weren’t able to get through to them. Andy told us that they’re not currently operating, although they also haven’t officially dissolved.

This episode was produced by Alex Atack and edited by me, Dana Ballout, with additional support from Zeina Dowidar and Nadeen Shaker. Fact checking by Tamara Juburi. Sound design was by Alex Atack and mixing was by Mohamad Khreizat. Bella Ibrahim is our marketing director.

Kerning Cultures is a production of the Kerning Cultures Network – a network of beautifully crafted shows about Middle East in both Arabic and English. Find out more at kerningcultures.com, or by searching for Kerning Cultures Network wherever you get your podcasts.

ALEX ATACK: Thank you to Vikash Mishra, Andy Bowerman and Captain Abdulla Al Hayyas for speaking to me for this episode, and to Ayushi Shah, who took a 6 hour round trip to help us record Vikash’s interview at his home in Mumbai. Special thanks to Martha Schlee for suggesting this story to us in the first place.

DANA BALLOUT: We’ll be back with a new episode next week. Thank you for listening.

[OUTRO STING]