It is seven months since Vinay Kumar and his crew left the UAE after washing ashore in Umm Al Quwain on board a shipping tanker abandoned at sea for almost three years.
When the Merchant Tanker Iba split from its anchorage in rough seas and drifted on to a public beach in January, it gave the world a rare insight into the challenges of a life at sea.
The five men spent 43 months at sea — and 32 months without pay — after the tanker's owner, Alco Shipping Services, fell into a financial crisis. Maritime law states no vessel can be left unattended at sea and so the men stayed aboard, knowing that if they left they would probably not see the $170,000 collectively owed to them.
The tanker broke from its anchor and became grounded after strong winds pushed it to the shallow waters of Umm Al Quwain’s public beach early one morning in January, 2021.
Mr Kumar, 31, and his four colleagues, two from India and two others from Pakistan and Myanmar, remained on the ship in limbo for months while their plea for unpaid wages was resolved in a Dubai Court.
Now back home, Mr Kumar, said it has been difficult readjusting to family life.
He was reunited with his wife Pushpa and two children, Mukund, 3, and Navya, 7, in the small village of Ghnehra in Himachal Pradesh, a northern Indian state in the Himalayas.
“It was very strange coming home,” said Mr Kumar, who spoke to The National from India.
“I had to quarantine for 15 days and eventually got to see my family.
“Life was very different, there were a lot of changes.
“After we came home, the struggle was with no work because of the pandemic.”
“I live in a beautiful mountain area, but I found it very difficult to climb or walk anywhere as I had lost so much fitness by being on the ship for so long.
“It took at least three months to regain my fitness, and I have lost some weight — almost 10kg.
“Now I play cricket again every day keeping wicket and feel fit. Before I could do nothing, not even run.”
Abandoned at sea
The crew had been abandoned since 2017 by their employer, Alco Shipping, after the company hit financial difficulties.
Life on board the giant rusting tanker with limited rations, clean water and electricity was only matched in suffering by the families left behind with minimal contact with their loved ones.
The wife of second engineer, Riasect Ali, 52, struggled to pay for her cancer care without her husband’s salary.
And the ship’s cook Monchand Sheikh, 26, was forced to call off his wedding and abandon plans to build his parents a house.
Meanwhile, chief engineer Nay Win, 53, has since returned to Myanmar in the grip of a military coup.
Ironically, after more than three years at sea he was forced to quarantine in an old cruise ship transformed into a floating hotel in Yangon before being allowed home.
A long term health condition partly caused by his poor diet on board the Iba resulted in a lengthy hospital stay and an operation to remove 30 gall stones fro his abdomen.
The procedure cost around $10,000, a large chunk of the outstanding salary he was finally repaid by the ship's owners once the Iba was sold.
Now in India with his young family, Mr Kumar has not ruled out a return to sea.
“I am waiting for confirmation for a cruise ship job, so until then I am working on my home and the fields,” he said.
“My children have already joined school and I have paid for one stage of their education.
“I will be more wary of the company I join after what happened.
“I don’t want to take one per cent risk with a new job. I can’t put my family through this all again.”
In 2021, the shipping industry hit the headlines like never before.
From the giant Ever Given container ship stuck in the Suez Canal, disrupting global trade, to the abandoned Mt Iba and soaring shipping costs, the industry has been in the spotlight.
Those inside the industry hope 2022 will be the year the world takes note of those at the centre of shipping and their safety.
“If 2021 was the year we all noticed shipping, hopefully 2022 will be the year we notice the seafarers,” said Andrew Bowerman, regional director for the Mission to Seafarers charity — a welfare organisation that supports crew in the UAE.
“Only a small minority of crew are badly treated, but we will continue to work on improving the welfare side.
“The big shift is the ability for authorities to now arrest and auction a ship without the need to go through a lengthy court process.
“It should speed up the process of ensuring crew are paid when there is a case of abandonment.
“Things could be resolved in months, rather than years.”
Disrupting the industry
Covid-19 caused huge disruption to shipping in 2021, with tankers delayed from docking causing global logistics to grind to a halt.
Grounded flights delayed crew changes, causing problems for those stuck on ships, and landlocked sailors who needed work to support their families.
“It is an area that needs to be addressed,” said Chris Peters, chief executive of Maritime Logistics at Tristar.
“For every crew stuck at sea for too long, there are more crew not working.
“This year has seen improvements, but there is still a lot more to be done, particularly in the Far East.”
Crew changeovers were worst hit in China. Ships permanently trading in the Far East were often forced to sail into India and the Middle East just to change their onboard staff.
“There was a recognition of issues in the UAE and that was welcome,” said Mr Peters.
“It has been one of the first nations to recognise seafarers properly.”
A new international welfare charter, the Neptune Declaration on Seafarer Wellbeing and Crew Change, established to resolve maritime issues, has been signed by more than 850 organisations and companies.
It points to a brighter future for vulnerable crew, by recognising them as key workers, industry standard health and safety protocols and greater collaboration between shipping firms and authorities. It also aims to improve air connections between key maritime hubs for seafarers.
David Hammond, chief executive of the Human Rights at Sea organisation, said legislative and policy changes will need to be enforced.
“Without the threat of public exposure surrounding those entities and persons responsible for human, labour, and social rights abuses, the system remains weak, insular, and open to criticism,” he said.
“The main failing of any new regulatory initiative is not doing justice, and not being seen to do justice.
“The greatest challenge to new regulatory regimes is the first-hand exposure of failings by victims of egregious abuse.
“They are increasingly finding their voice through media and social media platforms as powerful levellers to weak enforcement systems.”
The UAE is a founding member of the Riyadh Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to achieve safe, secure and efficient shipping in the maritime jurisdictions in the Arabian Gulf.
Being a flag state, the UAE ranks 21st worldwide in terms of fleet size, with more than 20 major ports spread across from Fujairah to Abu Dhabi.
“As a signatory of the MLC convention, the UAE takes proactive measures to safeguard the interests of seafarers, aiming to improve the quality of life for seafarers,” said Hessa Al Malek, adviser to the Minister for Maritime Transport Affairs, Ministry of Energy and Infrastructure.
“We were one of the first International Maritime Organisation Member States to designate seafarers as key workers during the Covid-19 pandemic, and supported seafarers by facilitating safe ship crew change, administering vaccinations, and providing them access to medical care.”