Abandon Ship: new law of sea

One of the worst shipping crises of recent times has left crews stranded.

For the past 10 months, the 24 crew members of the MV Wanling have not been paid. By last month, they were reduced to selling parts of the 500-foot vessel for scrap to buy food. Now, anchored outside Ho Chi Minh City, they've become virtual beggars.

According to the crew, the Singapore-based owner of the bulk carrier has abandoned ship - leaving them to fend for themselves. In a recent e-mail they called their living conditions "unsafe and unhygienic."

What's happened to the crew of the Wanling in Vietnam is now starting to happen elsewhere around the globe: An increasing number of shipowners are abandoning crews.

Indeed, falling freight rates caused by the collapse of Asian economies is producing one of the worst shipping crises in modern times. Everyone from stevedores to tugboat skippers is facing hardships.

The paychecks that never come

But some of the worst Dickensian tales are those of the seamen who work the carriers themselves. The stranded crews, without paychecks and in foreign ports, have no way to return home. If they leave the ship, they risk never getting paid by a new owner. So, without doing anything wrong, they are almost imprisoned on their ships.

"A lot of shipping companies are going bankrupt, particularly in the Asia Pacific region," says Steve Cotton, assistant secretary at the International Trade Union secretariat in London. "We are very wary and expecting 1999 to be worse."

The Seamen's Church Institute is now monitoring 14 vessels that have been abandoned by their owners. "A year or two ago this type of situation was rare. Now it has increased far beyond anything we've ever seen," says Doug Stevenson, director of the Institute's Center for Seafarers' Rights. The number of abandoned ships is twice that of last year, and "these are only the ships whose crews contacted us so we could try to help them," Mr. Stevenson says.

A main reason owners are willing to walk away from their vessels is that the value of older ships has declined significantly. New owners are reluctant to buy the vessels, which often need environmental and safety improvements. "The problem is that it's cheaper to walk away than to recognize your responsibilities," says the Rev. Ken Peters of Missions to Seamen in London.

In 1996, for instance, Greece-based Adriatic Tankers defaulted on $620 million of debt. Some 40 vessels were stranded until the ships were either sold or scrapped.

To try to prevent shipowners from abandoning their crews, some countries, such as Liberia, require the repatriation of the crew. "It's disgraceful; anyone who abandons a crew does not deserve to operate a ship," says Jeremy Smith, general secretary of the Liberian Shipowners Council in New York. "We need to see if this is a problem the whole industry needs to address," he adds.

Underfunded shipowners in developing countries

Shipowners maintain that the main culprits are underfunded owners in developing countries. "Typically, they are small operators," says Richard DuMoulin, chairman of Marine Transport Corp., the oldest shipping company in the United States.

There is also a new source of problem ships: many of the vessels that sail under the flags of former Soviet Republics and the East Bloc.

That's the case with the MV Nora, a 295-foot Romanian-flag cargo ship that was abandoned three weeks ago in Wilmington, Del. The nine-member crew, which had not been paid for six months, is refusing to leave the vessel. "Our lawyers are trying to figure out where to put it since it's taking up dock space," says Bobby Senseny, the Wilmington harbor master.

At least the Nora's crew has access to food and fresh water in a US port where seamen's organizations can help them out.

"Typically, they are abandoned in a foreign port where maybe there's a strange language and the crew only eats if they catch fish," says Mr. Stevenson.

That's what happened to the Delta Pride, a 740-foot dry bulk carrier, which was anchored off Tampico, Mexico. The ship's owner, Tristar Shipping Lines in Karachi, Pakistan, stopped paying the men's wages 10 months ago. As their situation became desperate, the Delta Pride slipped anchor and headed for the US.

As the ship approached Brownsville, Texas, the captain radioed ashore asking for a launch. Capt. Eddie Max Stovall, a local harbor pilot, recalls, "Finally, he said, 'Look we don't have a lot of stuff, we have no food and no water,' "

"On Thanksgiving Day we brought out $500 worth of food and water. These guys were so weak they could only pull up two or three gallons of water at a time," he says. And the US Coast Guard assisted in early December.

A local company donated diesel, which allowed the ship to restart its generators. "You could see the life come back into these guys - now they can cook and run their pumps," Mr. Stovall says. Another company donated phone time so the crew could call their families.

Crews are reluctant to leave their vessels if they have not been paid because they hope that if the ship is sold, as creditors, they will be paid their back wages.

"When you have an extended family relying on this income, there is a loss of face to go home without the money," says Mr. Peters.

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