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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

Desperate tanker crew stranded off UAE coast for more than a year

Legal dispute involving owners of MT Zoya 1 supertanker holding up salary payments with crew unable to come ashore 

The crew of the Zoya stand on the deck of the supertanker having been stranded for more than a year off the coast of Sharjah. Zoya crew
The crew of the Zoya stand on the deck of the supertanker having been stranded for more than a year off the coast of Sharjah. Zoya crew

Desperate sailors have spoken of how they have been trapped on board a supertanker 17 kilometres off the coast of the UAE because of a legal dispute involving the ship's owners.

Sixteen Indian and Pakistani crew have been on the 330-metre MT Zoya 1 for up to a year, awaiting coastguard clearance to come ashore.

Because of an unspecified legal dispute with the owners of the vessel, crew have been mostly unpaid since December and have been given no information when they will be rescued from the ship.

Although the crew is receiving regular fresh supplies, they say they are not being allowed to leave until all disputes have been settled.

Lawyers acting on behalf of the ship’s owners claim MT Zoya 1 has been unlawfully arrested outside port limits following a claim filed at Sharjah courts by a Swiss bank.

The legal claim relates to an unpaid loan by a third party, but the parties involved said they could not discuss the matter any further while it is in court.

Charterers Avantgarde Petroleum, part of ECB International, the ship's owners, said it is trying to support the men and hopes to have the arrest order lifted soon.

As the ship is anchored outside of the UAE immigration jurisdiction, a crew change has not been possible.

Tensions are running high on board, with Chief Officer Okram Benaral, 39, struggling to maintain order, given the psychological strain of being trapped at sea for months on end.

“The ship is not moving anywhere, all we can do is eat and sleep," said Mr Benaral, from Manipur in India.

"We are doing nothing. The men have completed their contracts, but some have been on here more than a year. No one wants to be here.

“We are getting mentally sick and the men are fighting each other. Some are crying and getting desperate, they are under much stress. It’s a very big problem; we just want to go home.”

"Very large crude carriers", or supertankers, are the largest operating cargo ships in the world with a size often in excess of 250,000 dead-weight tonnage.

They are primarily used for long-haul crude-oil transportation from the Arabian Gulf to Europe, Asia and North America, and can cost up to US$120 million (Dh440.8m), depending on the ship’s age and condition.

MT Zoya 1 was not thought to be loaded with cargo at the time of its anchorage off Sharjah.

“My children are 2 and 1, and I left after my youngest son was born, so I hardly know him,” said Mr Beneral, who said he is owed about $32,000 in unpaid salary.

Second engineer Sayed Nawab Ali, 33, from Karachi, has been on board MT Zoya 1 for seven months, and said he is owed about $24,000 in unpaid salary.

“There are problems with the ship’s engine, so we are unable to move,” he said.

“The company needs to take the vessel into the dry dock for repairs, but until they have resolved their legal dispute the coastguard will not allow us to come ashore.

“All our documents have been taken by the coastguard and the ship has been arrested until the matter between the owners and the Sharjah court is resolved.

“Staying at just one place at sea is very difficult and a couple of crew have tried to commit suicide by jumping into the sea.

“It is very difficult psychologically for all of us as we haven’t seen our families in months.”

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The vessel has been anchored off Sharjah since October 2016 according to crew, who have said it is in need of repairs before it can return to service.

Supplies on board are regularly being topped up by the ship’s management, but so far, crew have been unable to disembark.

Most of the crew claims they are owed money for their contracted work, increasing tensions on board and putting strain on families reliant on their income.

“We have done nothing wrong,” said Mr Ali, who should be paid $6,000 a month, but has not been paid since November.

Lawyers acting on behalf of charterers Avantgarde Petroleum said it was aware of the situation on board.

“We are facing very difficult times,” said a legal consultant for the company.

“Not much care and consideration has been given to the people on board, although we are managing their livelihood it will not stop the crew, their family members and us, the charterers, from being worried about their lives on board.

“We cannot repair the engine damage as the head owner is currently not in a financial position to pay out any more money.

“The vessel has been unemployed, so we are facing commercial issues in vessel’s employment.

“We have diverted funds from our other sources and have been providing the amenities and salary to the crew. Unfortunately, we have also become the victims of this dispute, and as second defendants have objected to this case and the arrest of the crew and the vessel.

“We anticipate to have the vessel arrest revoked and are endeavouring to have the have the crew salary matter resolved at the very earliest. We are doing our best to have them safely sent back home to their families.”

In September, following a spate of similar disputes that left seafarers stranded at sea, the Indian consul general said it was the responsibility of the ship’s agent to arrange a sign off from the vessel to allow crew to leave, in most cases.

Captain Anand, of Aurum Ship Management, which is managing the vessel while it is in UAE waters, said the payments for MT Zoya 1 crew should be resolved soon.

“The crew will be paid within a day or two, maybe a week,” he said.