'I am broken': sailors stranded at sea in UAE finally set to return to dry land

Dozens of sailors trapped at sea for up to two years due to salary disputes face the harsh realities of rebuilding their lives

Chief engineer of the MV Azraqmoiah, Guru Ganesan, will be repatriated to India this week once his passport has been approved after two years at sea. Courtesy: Mr Ganesan 
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A long-suffering sailor stranded at sea for more than a year said he has been left "mentally and physically broken" by his ordeal, as he prepares to return to dry land for good.

The misery endured by chief engineer Guru Ganesan, a member of the embattled crew of the MV Azraqmoiah, anchored off the Sharjah coast due to a pay dispute since February, 2018, is far from unique.

He is one of 31 sailors on seven abandoned vessels trapped in the waters of the UAE due to salary disputes, some for up to two years.

The mental turmoil of living in blackout conditions on a tanker miles from shore has left its mark on the seafarer, from Tamil Nadu in Southern India.

After months of negotiations, he has finally been allowed to come ashore and return home after accepting half of the money he is owed after not being paid for close to 18 months.

The 39-year-old could not face another scorching summer in the Arabian Gulf, waiting to be rescued.

“We are all very tired, and mentally drained with what we have been through,” he said.

“When the ship was in blackout because we had no power, it was very difficult.

“I know I will have to get medical help as soon as I go home. I am mentally and physically broken.”

A life at sea has prevented him from finding a wife and starting family. That at least, could change as he prepares to head home from Dubai in a repatriation deal that has been months in the making.

Psychologists predict the men face a difficult period of adjustment.

The sea is all I have known for almost 20 years, now I must do something else.

Depression and anxiety dominated his life in recent weeks, as the crew eagerly awaited news of a legal case to have their ship arrested, allowing them to leave their posts.

The MV Azraqmoiah was one of seven vessels operated by Elite Marine Way Services to hit financial problems, with the crew owed months of salary.

Without travel documents, they were unable to come ashore.

Some remain at sea, determined to hold out for 100 per cent of their unpaid wages, others have conceded defeat and are now on one of the arrested vessels at Dubai Maritime City, waiting to be repatriated.

Mr Ganesan is facing up to the daunting challenge of rebuilding his life.

With both parents dead, he is unsure of the life he will go back to, and what support he will have after his time at sea.

“My family is not rich,” he said.

“We have had many problems since a cyclone hit our village.

“The sea is all I have known for almost 20 years, now I must do something else. I cannot face going back out there, it was torture.”

Mr Ganesan is owed $57,600 (Dh212,000) in total for the last 17 months work, but has accepted payment of $34,560 (Dh127,000) to sign off from his company.

Dipak Mishra, 49, is captain of the cargo ship Tamim Aldar and has also signed off accepting $48,000 (Dh176,000) pay for the past 24 months work. In total, he is owed almost $100,000 (Dh367,000) in unpaid wages.

“We have all been ready to go home for months, the men were desperate to leave,” he said.

“Still we do not know how long it will take to get home.

“It is not in our hands, that has been the most frustrating aspect of this.

“It has been difficult for us to survive this experience.”

Mr Mishra, who is from near Calcutta, has been paid some his salary in cash, but he is unable to spend it as he remains onboard the vessel until he has a new passport.

Since being on board, his wife has left him and his seven-year-old daughter has not seen him for more than two years.

“I could not send any money to my wife, so the relationship ended,” he said.

“I have been in the merchant navy since 2002, but never experienced anything like this before.

“Usually we are at sea for 8 months, so 24 months is a long time.

“Without help from the embassy for medication I needed for my diabetes and blood pressure, I don't know what would have happened.

“I cannot sail again. I must think of doing something else, but I don’t know what, maybe farming.

“This has totally changed my life.”

Shipping regulators have taken steps to end the abandonment of merchant navy sailors in the UAE.

Operators now require compulsory insurance to cover crew salaries for up to four months, as well as repatriation costs.

“This whole experience has been like being locked in a jail, but we have not done anything wrong or committed any crime,” he said.

“The men tried to help each other, but we were all isolated and forgotten.

“I won’t know the full effect of this until I have seen a doctor. I am sure my life will never be the same.”