Sailors stranded in Arabian Gulf face uncertain future

Mental health impact of two years stuck at sea could pose long term problems for 40 sailors

Rough seas and strong winds have delayed the rescue of sailors who are stranded 50 kilometres off the UAE coast and have been at sea for more than two years.

A crew of 10 men are still on board the UAE shipping vessel MV Azraqmoiah and some have not been paid for 17 months.

They claim they are collectively owed more than $250,000 (Dh920,000) in wages for their time at sea.

The crew are among 40 seafarers stuck at sea on several vessels due to an ongoing legal dispute involving the shipping company.

A government-appointed notary is waiting to board the ship to take crew statements and begin the repatriation process, once the winter weather has improved.

According to Captain Ayyappan Swaminathan, from Tamil Nadu, India, who is currently on board the MV Azraqmoiah, the 10-man crew are running out of food.

“The provisions have been coming every 30 to 40 days or so, but we have had nothing since December 22 from the company,” he said.

“The company is providing only very basic supplies – Arabic bread, rice and dhal.

“They are sending us tea bags and big kilo bags of sugar, but none of us take sugar.”

“We have not stopped work. We do four-hour shifts every day to keep our routines, otherwise we would find it hard to keep our minds.”

The ship has been at sea for more than two years and has been anchored off the UAE coast since February 21, 2018.

There are 10 crew on board – eight Indian, one Sudani and a Tanzanian – who are taking it in turns on lookout shifts to watch for other ocean traffic. The vessel is anchored near to a busy shipping lane off the Umm al Quwain coast.

An emergency generator lights the ship up at night and provides some limited power for cooking and air-conditioning during the day.

“Mentally it is tough, many of the men are feeling depressed,” said Capt Ayyappan.

“Life is very difficult. There is boredom and everyone is worried about their families back home as we have not been paid for so long.

“We have house loans, family bills and school fees for our children.

“There has been contact with our families, but the company won’t even pay for our phone call costs.

“We pray we will be paid what we are owed. We need these salaries for our families.”

Embassies, the Federal Transport Authority and the Mission to Seafarer’s charity have been working to help repatriate the men — many of their passports have been retained by agents.

So far, almost Dh150,000 has been raised by the International Seafarers Welfare and Assistance Network and the MtS charity.

Most of it will go towards repatriation fees, but it is unlikely to cover the costs of the mental health support the men may need.

“These sailors will experience similar difficulties to recently released prisoners or hostages,” said Carolyn Yaffe, a cognitive behavioural therapist at the Camali Clinic in Dubai. She has worked in mental health support in juvenile detention facilities.

“I can imagine the feelings of isolation are similar, as they have lost regular contact with families and social networks.

"Not knowing what the outcome will be will worsen any feelings of vulnerability they may have.

“When they return there could be a culture shock to deal with. The way they see the world around them will have changed, so they will likely experience post traumatic stress disorder.”

At least one of the crew has lost a close family member during his two years at sea, and new babies have been born who they are yet to meet.

“They are going home to an unfamiliar situation,” said Ms Yaffe.

“Their children will look different after two years and spousal relationships may be compromised. If there has been no contact, some family members may not even know if they are still alive.

“Understanding the issues these men are facing is hugely important.

“It is important they recognise the signs of depression and how they can seek help.