Tanker's crew stranded since February

A crew of 23 foreign seamen has been stranded for more than six months aboard a massive oil tanker anchored off Marina Bay.

The 22 Indians and a Romanian face low morale and cabin fever after becoming innocent victims when the ship was seized over an alleged US$65 million (S$82 million) debt.

The men were barred by the immigration authorities from setting foot in Singapore except for three hours last week when 11 were allowed to send funds home. The tanker's captain Ashish N. Jha, 33, told The Straits Times when he came onshore last week that the crew's morale is low.

While they are not short of food or water, there are "times where they are depressed because they just want to go home". "We take turns to cheer one another up," he added. They pass their time maintaining the ship, watching TV, listening to the radio and calling home.

"Thankfully the international phone rates from Singapore are not too expensive," said engineer Infinity K., 33, an Indian national. He hopes the financial wrangle can be sorted out fast.

"My wife is giving birth in November, and I hope to be home when I become a father," said Mr Infinity. The Marshall Islands-registered vessel, the Fortune Elephant - longer than three football fields - arrived in February to wait to be hired to ship oil but no job came after three months.

Then in May, a Taiwanese bank, Cathay United Bank, successfully applied to the Singapore Supreme Court for a seizure order over more than US$65 million allegedly owed by the ship's Taiwanese owner TMT to the bank.

TMT has to pay the bank before the ship will be released, or the bank can sell the ship to recover what it is owed. Such seizures are uncommon. Seven other ships are currently under seizure before Singapore courts as the vessels lie off the coast here.

In June, TMT applied to a US bankruptcy court for protection from creditors so it could continue operations while sorting out its debts. TMT and its Singapore agent NOS Ship Agency could not be reached for comment. But it is understood that the owner and bank are negotiating through their lawyers for the release of the ship.

With help from the Singapore Maritime Officers' Union (SMOU), the crew got their June salary of US$76,000 in cash. The bank has paid the crew more than US$313,000 in wages by wire. SMOU executive secretary Mary Liew told The Straits Times the union is linked to the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) that helps stranded seafarers.

"We'll extend our help to any stranded seafarers in Singapore waters. Likewise if our local seafarers in international waters are in dire conditions or circumstances, we can also count on ITF and its affiliates to help our members when we can't reach them."

tohyc@sph.com.sg


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