In the steamy heat of summer in the Arabian Gulf air conditioning is essential if crews are to survive the rigours of living and working in such conditions. The crew of a ship in the anchorage off Ajman in the UAE found themselves relying on air conditioning in an even more basic way than usual. They were reduced to drinking the water that is a by-product of the air conditioner’s condenser as it dripped off the casing. The ship had been without supplies for more than two weeks. The agent had not been paid by the owner and the owner was in financial trouble. So the men on board had nothing to keep them alive apart from licking up the water from the air-conditioner and the few fish they could catch.
When the young men of this crew left their homes in Sri Lanka to work as seafarers on board a big ship they were full of hope, and pleased to have landed jobs that meant they would be able to send home significant sums of money to provide for their families. Some months later they were reduced to living like beggars, trapped on board a ship which was to all intents and purposes abandoned.
In Ajman port Fr Nelson Fernandez watched as the truck load of supplies was manhandled onto a small all-purpose supply boat. He had chartered the boat and ordered the food and water and was now going out into the anchorage to deliver the emergency supplies to the crews of five ships. As well as the Sri Lankans about 20 Filipinos were also surviving on fishing and the occasional delivery of meagre supplies from a good hearted agent. Perched between dozens of boxes containing 2 ltr bottles of water, cartons of frozen chickens, trays of eggs, sacks of rice, and boxes containing various sorts of fruit and vegetables he wondered what sort of psychological condition the men would be in.
On one vessel the crew had not received any salary for over a year. Most of that time they were stuck in the anchorage with no means of helping themselves get out of the trap they were in. They made an SOS call to Mission to Seafarers UAE on a phone that had almost no charge and no credit. A couple of weeks earlier they had made a desperate attempt to force a resolution of their predicament by taking the vessel into the port, but the harbourmaster refused to allow them to tie up and sent them back out into the limbo of the anchorage.
When our supply boat drew alongside it was clear that the men were in a poor state physically. Their clothes were dirty and ragged and the vessel was rusty and unloved. Yet the men were remarkably resilient and very pleased to see Fr Nelson and the desperately needed supplies. Unloading was a precarious operation as the swell toyed with our little supply boat. Throwing frozen chickens up onto a ship in the hope that the crew would catch them and not drop them into the sea seemed a faintly surreal way of being an MtS chaplain!
One of the men clambered down onto our little boat so that he could plead with us face to face. ‘Sir, please take us with you to the port. We have been here so long. We cannot survive out here much longer.’ It was not easy telling him that we could not smuggle him and his crewmates past the watchful eye of the coastguard.
As the powerful outboard motors of our little boat took us away from them on our way to the next ship they lined up on deck to wave goodbye, managing to raise a smile or two as we disappeared into the distance, waving in return. Our work on their behalf would resume the following day – calling the owner to persuade him to take responsibility for these men and their livelihoods, to say nothing of the dozens of family members in the Philippines suffering along with them.
As the effects of cheap oil become more and more apparent in the offshore sector of the shipping business the human cost in the industry becomes ever clearer. Offshore supply boat operators have cash flow problems and not enough work to generate income. The first people to feel these effects are the crews, whose salaries are either reduced, or in many cases, suspended. We were delivering emergency supplies to five ships. But there was no doubt in our minds that on board several of the other 70 ships in the anchorage similar desperate conditions were being experienced. We expect to be making such supply runs on a regular basis until market conditions for offshore oil improve.
As we made our way back to port our little craft was empty apart from us and our two man crew. Twenty two knots over the waters of the Arabian Gulf creates enough slipstream to give the impression that it’s not really that hot after all. But as we tied up back at the fish market wharf in mid-afternoon the Arabian summer heat was undeniable. For most of the men that we had seen on those ships in the anchorage a breezy transfer to land is a fantasy mirage. The crushing reality of the summer sauna is all they can expect, until we can somehow broker their release.