Hassan Sabrah hadn’t eaten in four days.
That’s when the chief engineer of the Moldova-flagged cargo ship JSM finally snapped, according to interviews with sailors, the port manager and local residents. He picked up a rock and hit his captain on the back of the head. Before the ship’s cook could pull Sabrah away, the captain’s blood was everywhere.
The attack came Aug. 2, after the 218-foot (67-meter) JSM had been tethered in the Greek port of Kiato for more than five months. A Greek court had refused to let the ship leave after a deadly harbor accident. The freighter’s owner couldn’t be reached, according to the captain, and there was no money for salaries or supplies. The ship had no electricity. The toilets didn’t work. Sabrah and the other nine crew members didn’t know if they’d ever make it home, they said.
The men were caught in a legal limbo that ensnares thousands like them around the world. More mariners have been abandoned by their employers than taken hostage by Somali pirates, according to the Mission to Seafarers, a London-based charity. The United Nations has documented cases of 2,379 stranded sailors on 199 ships in the past decade, with many more unreported.
In April, international agencies are scheduled to meet in Geneva to consider requiring companies in the $375 billion shipping industry, which handles about 90 percent of world trade, to carry insurance or a bond to pay for repatriating sailors when they get stranded.
“When a ship goes to sea, it goes a long way from the vision of most of society,” said Bud Darr, a former mariner who worked on abandonment cases as a lawyer for the U.S. Coast Guard. “But these seafarers are the backbone of our commerce, not just in a commercial sense but in the things we take for granted -- the niceties in life, the consumer goods that we use every day.”
The JSM’s saga shows the hazards mariners can face. On Feb. 14, the ship, captained by Ramez Haddad, a 49-year-old Syrian living in Egypt, arrived in Kiato from Alexandria, Egypt, carrying more than 1,000 tons of potatoes. The weather was cool and sunny. While port workers unloaded the potatoes, Haddad said he went into town and bought chocolates to bring home to his children. The JSM was scheduled to sail on to Turkey and Romania, then return to Egypt with a cargo of soda ash and timber, according to Haddad.
On Feb. 20, the crew prepared to leave. Something went wrong after a tugboat tied up to help them maneuver out of the harbor, according to court records and interviews with Haddad and Kiato officials. The tugboat made a wrong turn and started pulling the ship into shallow water, capsized and sank, Haddad said. The tugboat captain died.
Haddad appeared in court the next day and the judge absolved him of any wrongdoing, he said. The JSM, however, was ordered to stay in Kiato because the tugboat’s owner and the captain’s widow were suing to recover damages through a sale of the ship.
At first, Haddad said he wasn’t too concerned. He said he notified the ship’s manager, Mohamad Tartousi of Tartousi Shipping Ltd. in Constanta, Romania, whose job was to oversee the freighter’s operations from land. Tartousi said he would inform the vessel’s owner. The JSM was well stocked, and the crew had enough cash for their needs, Haddad said. At worst they would be on their way home in a week or so, he said.
Weeks turned into months. Haddad said he spoke with Tartousi every so often to update him on the ship’s situation, and Tartousi told Haddad he was working to resolve the problem. The crew hadn’t been paid and was owed about $100,000, Haddad said. Tartousi didn’t respond to questions from Bloomberg News concerning the crew’s wages.
While international conventions recognized sailors’ right to repatriation as early as 1926, that means little to those who find themselves abandoned, said Deirdre Fitzpatrick, executive director of Seafarers’ Rights International, an advocacy center in London.
“The industry is structured in a way that allows seafarers to be abandoned,” Fitzpatrick said in an interview. “That shouldn’t be allowed in this day and age. There is this loophole where a ship owner can walk away and the seafarers are left relying on charity to survive.”
The JSM’s arrangement -- Syrian, Egyptian and Lebanese sailors on a Moldova-flagged ship managed from Romania and Egypt -- typifies the industry’s web of different jurisdictions. Most ships fly flags from countries such as Panama, Liberia and the Marshall Islands, known as flags of convenience, that have looser regulations than other nations. The vessels are registered under shell companies that shield the real owner from liability.
“These are the sort of breaks in the whole chain of the employment relationship and of international responsibility,” said Cleo Doumbia-Henry, director of international labor standards at the UN’s International Labour Organization in Geneva.
Some abandonment cases have turned deadly. The captain of a Ukrainian car carrier stranded in New York Harbor for more than three months in 1999 committed suicide, said Doug Stevenson, director of the Center for Seafarers’ Rights at the Seamen’s Church Institute in Newark, New Jersey. Last year, a Ukrainian sailor died aboard a dredger abandoned for five months near Mumbai.
Other cases have dragged on and on. An oil tanker called the Iron Monger 3 has been anchored off the coast of the United Arab Emirates for more than two years amid a dispute between the ship owner, Taiwan-based TMT Co., and a lender. TMT Chairman Nobu Su said he couldn’t pay or supply the crew because his assets are frozen.
“This is like a floating prison,” Su said in a Nov. 15 interview.
This year the ILO and the International Maritime Organization, another UN agency, will consider a new rule, a decade in the making, that will allow port inspectors to prevent ships from sailing without insurance or a bond to pay for repatriating stranded mariners.
In August, insurers for about 60 percent of the world’s ships started covering the costs of repatriation for abandoned sailors, according to the International Group of P&I Clubs, a London-based maritime-insurance industry organization. That still leaves some 24,000 ships unprotected. And these policies are designed to protect ship owners, not seafarers themselves, Fitzpatrick said.
In anticipation of the UN meeting in April, London-based Willis Group Holdings Plc is in talks with “several” flag states for a new kind of repatriation coverage that would allow stranded crew members to alert insurers to their predicaments, said David Purdy, executive director of Willis’s financial and executive risks practice.
“The way trade is, there will continue to be abandonments,” Purdy said. In fact, as shipping companies come to expect insurers will pick up the tab, there might be an increase in the number of stranded sailors in the next couple of years, he said.
In April, the JSM crew ran out of the food they brought to Greece from Egypt. When Haddad told Tartousi, the manager said he couldn’t pay for new supplies because he couldn’t reach the owner, according to Haddad. Tartousi didn’t respond to Bloomberg News requests to confirm his attempts to reach the ship’s owner.
The crew cut back to one meal a day, Haddad said. Their scant pocket money didn’t go far in Kiato’s markets. On Sundays they had chicken and potatoes, and the rest of the week they ate beans, sometimes with a little chicken mixed in.
Crew members faced crises at home. Mohammad Abo Zeinab, the 36-year-old cook, said his wife didn’t believe he wasn’t allowed to leave the ship, so she filed for divorce, winning 25 percent of his salary and custody of their 3-year-old son.
Haddad said he sought help from the harbor master to get the crew home, but was told permission had to come from the ship’s flag state, Moldova. Tartousi sent some money from his own pocket every month -- about 20 or 30 euros ($27 to $41) a day for 10 people, Haddad said.
At first the crew turned off the electrical generator six hours a day. Then 12 hours on, 12 hours off. Then down to eight, then three. By the end of July, they were in blackout, Haddad said. They didn’t have flashlights. After running out of soap and medicine, some of the men developed infections in their ears, teeth and skin. Unable to recharge their phones, they lost touch with their families.
“We became tired and no one is able to stand a word from the other,” said Hilal Jomaa, the 28-year-old chief officer from Lebanon. “We had nothing and everyone was nervous.”
The crew expected Haddad to find a solution and get them home, Jomaa said, and as the months wore on, their resentment against him grew.
Then came Sabrah’s attack.
When Haddad returned from the hospital that night with three stitches in his head, Sabrah immediately apologized, Haddad said. Haddad forgave him and declined to press charges, he said.
“We were like animals in a cage,” Haddad said.
The incident alerted the town to the JSM’s predicament. The port manager said he gave them food and fuel. Passing fishermen tossed the crew some catch, Haddad said. Kiato’s mayor said he arranged for a nearby apartment where the men could shower, cook and charge their phones. A café let them use the Internet. The local sailing club cobbled together care packages of chicken and French fries, according to the group’s leader, Mina Tsekou.
“If somebody is suffering, I cannot stay there and do nothing,” Tsekou said in a phone interview.
When Haddad reconnected with his family, he said he learned that without his income, they didn’t eat some days. He said his wife told him his 3-year-old son asked her for a new father because he must hate them for staying away so long.
“What we need is not food, not house -- we need to go home,” Haddad said. “Each day is like one year.”
Haddad said Kiato officials helped him petition Moldova on Oct. 4 for permission to leave the ship and go home. The reply came on Oct. 22: One person had to stay to guard the vessel until it could be auctioned; the rest were free to go, the letter said.
Abo Zeinab, the ship’s cook, said he volunteered to stay with the JSM because his family had left him and he had nothing to go to home to. He remains in Kiato.
Haddad said he never had direct contact with the owner. Tartousi, the JSM’s manager, sold the ship in October 2009 to a shell company in the Marshall Islands called JSM Shipping Inc., according to Irina Gisca, a spokeswoman for the Moldovan Ministry of Transport and Road Infrastructure. Efforts to contact the company were unsuccessful. JSM Shipping has not filed any information on officers, directors or shareholders, according to International Registries Inc., which manages the Pacific island country’s corporate records.
JSM Shipping sent a letter to the Moldovan authorities saying the crew members were repatriated and their salaries paid, the Moldovan transport ministry spokeswoman said. Haddad, however, said he’s still owed about $70,000. He said he hopes to recoup that money when the JSM is sold. After a November auction for the JSM failed, another is scheduled this month.
Tartousi said in an e-mail that the crew was sent home. He didn’t answer follow-up e-mails or phone calls over more than two months.
On their last day in Kiato, Oct. 28, crew members packed their clothes and received their sign-off papers from Haddad in a makeshift ceremony around the ship’s galley table. The wind and sun pressed against them as they carried their suitcases down the gangplank. They loaded their luggage into the car that would take them to the airport, the rusty ship towering behind them.
Sabrah, the chief engineer, kissed the captain’s head as they parted.