Recovery begins for hero captain of ship abandoned off UAE coast

As Capt Ayyappan Swaminathan rebuilds family life in India, four others await rescue from ghost ship

Capt Ayyappan Swaminathan at home in India with his wife Menaga and daughter Aniha. Courtesy Mission to Seafarers
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Two weeks after ending his 18-month ordeal trapped on board an abandoned shipping tanker, Indian sailor Capt Ayyappan Swaminathan is finally rebuilding his life.

Adjustment to living back on solid ground has been tough for the merchant navy seaman, who was marooned on board the MV Azraqmoiah off the cost of Sharjah until his rescue in June.

Like more than 30 others, he was isolated when his employer, Elite Way Marine Services had financial troubles and stopped paying crew salaries.

After lengthy negotiations, most settled for substantially less than they were owed to escape the hellish living conditions on board their ships.

“I have had a lot of difficulties trying to recover my family back to a normal situation,” said Capt Swaminathan, who has been reunited with his wife Menaga and daughter Aniha, 7, in his home town of Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu.

“I am only now realising how much they have struggled while I have been away.

“It is shameful how difficult it has been for them without my salary.

“Slowly I will recover my mortgage, loans and the maintenance costs needed for my house.

“I have had to pay many bills for the gas, water and electricity,” he said.

Capt Ayyappan led negotiations on behalf of his 10 crew and others entangled in the dispute. He made sure to frequently post about the men’s plight on social media to retain focus on their cause.

Last month, he was the last to leave the vessel, along with Rajib Ali, a cook from India, and Sudanese chief officer Ibrahim Adam Iazim.

Now Capt Ayyappan is trying to make up for lost time with his family and says his future at sea remains uncertain.

“I have had an offer of a job, but my family has lost two years of their lives with me,” he said.

“I want them to be settled first before I think about where I go for work next.”

Four other men remain trapped at sea on the Tamim Aldar ship, also owned by Elite Way Marine Services.

Loaded up with rocks once destined for Fujairah construction sites, the giant vessel has been anchored more than 37km off the Ajman coast since August 2017.

Four crew on the abandoned Tamim Aldar attempted to leave their ship on a lifeboat on Saturday, after concerns the tanker could sink. Courtesy Vikash Mishra

On Saturday, the two Indian sailors and two Eritreans, made a desperate bid for land in a dilapidated lifeboat, as they feared the rusting Tamim Aldar was dangerously listing and could sink.

Their hopes of rescue were dashed after coastguards ordered the men back to the vessel.

Maritime authorities did not want the ship left unattended in a busy shipping lane, where it would pose a risk of collision at night.

The ship has no power, as its generator is damaged and the ship’s engine has not been serviced for almost two years.

Mission to Seafarers, a charity, is serving the ships with supplies.

Regional director Rev Andy Bowerman said the Tamim Aldar is in the worst condition of all the abandoned vessels.

“It is incredibly rusty and has had no servicing for more than 20 months, with limited fuel,” he said.

“I have sympathy for the coastguard, as leaving a vessel of that size unmanned is a big risk, but it was disappointing the crew were turned back.

“They’ve gone back to an unsafe vessel, and who knows what will happen.

“The euphoria of getting to land before being sent back has worn off now and they have returned to desperation.

“It is hard to imagine their emotions,” said Rev Bowerman.

The coastguard fed the men and contacted the owners to demand action is taken to tow the vessel in.

An agreement has since been reached to sign-off the crew and tow the vessel into port this week.

The company has been banned from operating in the UAE by the Federal Transport Authority since June 2018.

Second engineer Vikash Mishra has been trying to leave Tamim Aldar since 2017.

The Indian sailor has been on board since October, 2016 and is owed about $70,000 (Dh257,000) in unpaid wages.

Three other crew are owed about $140,000 (Dh514,000).

The men agreed they were more likely to receive the money owed by staying on board, until conditions became too much to bear.

“We were in complete black out and felt the vessel was no longer safe for us,” said Mr Mishra.

“Even sleeping outside is difficult because of the cockroaches and insects.

“We only tried to leave in the lifeboat as we felt we had no choice.”

At about 1am on Monday a Mubarak Marine emergency vessel delivered fuel, fresh water and food.

Jasamin Fichte, a managing partner at shipping lawyers Fichte and Co, said the Tamim Aldar dispute has been difficult to resolve due to its distance from shore.

“The men only left the ship because they were desperate and feared for their safety,” she said.

“Their ship was outside of UAE jurisdiction in international waters, but we have tried to offer as much help as possible.

“The crew should be paid by the end of the week.”