Stranded tanker caught up in financial row runs aground on UAE coast

Sailors on board ‘MT Iba’ have been stuck at sea for almost four years after vessel’s owner hit hard times

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In depth: Crew of stranded tanker tell of return to a changed world

Crew onboard a tanker that ran aground in Umm Al Quwain are hoping that, after three-and-a-half years at sea, they will at last be able to go home.

Five merchant sailors onboard MT Iba have spent 43 months at sea – and 32 months without pay – after the tanker's owner, Alco Shipping Services, fell into a financial crisis.

On Sunday, Maj Gen Sheikh Rashid Al Mualla, chief of UAQ Police and head of the local emergency team, chaired a meeting to resolve the problem.

An Alco Shipping Services representative said the company would tow the vessel from the site when the weather conditions were right.

There is a degree of urgency now for the men's safety

The company has searched for a buyer for the tanker so it can pay substantial debts to port authorities.

Those negotiations were largely sidelined by the pandemic.

The tanker became grounded after strong winds pushed it to the shallow waters of Umm Al Quwain’s public beach early on Friday morning.

“The men were exhausted after battling wind and waves in the darkness as we drifted towards shore,” said Naywin, 51, the ship’s chief engineer.

“The sea was very rough, so it was challenging for all of us. We tried to start the engines and go back but the wind was very strong and we could not control the ship.

“There is no deck officer on board, so we were not able to do anything. We knew the anchor was broken but we did not know what to do. Then the ship started rolling.

“We contacted Hamriyah port control and also Sharjah, but they could not tow us in either. It would be dangerous for us to leave the ship now.”

The ship had a skeleton crew onboard since its owners ceased trading. Maritime law states no vessel can be left unattended at sea.

It has now sunk into the sand less than 100 metres from land. At 100 metres long and 18 metres wide, it is a blot on an otherwise serene shoreline.

On Sunday, as the waves crashed against the vessel’s hull, port authorities prepared to drag her to safety,

That is likely to happen soon, with the 13-year-old tanker towed 60 kilometres south to Dubai Maritime City.

Once there, the crew will step on to dry land for the first time since 2017.

Collectively, the men are owed wages of more than $170,000, which can be paid only when the vessel is sold.

The Panamanian-flagged tanker is thought to be worth between $2 million and $4m.

Waqar Hasan, operations manager at Alco Shipping Services, hopes a deal can be signed to sell the vessel as soon as possible.

“The authorities are informed and we are working to salvage the vessel with the Umm Al Quwain disaster centre,” Mr Hasan said.

“Thankfully, everybody is safe. We have passed on all the details of the crew and the authorities are in regular contact with them.

“A buyer for the vessel has been available for eight months but we were waiting for permission to sell.

“The anchor has broken twice and now it is grounded on the beach. It now depends on the port authorities what happens to the crew.”

Although supplies of diesel, fresh water and food were delivered to MT Iba when it was at anchor three kilometres offshore, regular drops were restricted by the pandemic.

The sailors have been surviving on limited rations of rice and chickpeas, with the last of the diesel used to try to steer the ship from danger when its anchors broke.

Both damaged steel chains were swinging freely from the ship’s bow, an indication of the strength of Friday’s winds, which reached almost 30kph.

The charity Mission to Seafarers has been working on behalf of the sailors, all from South-East Asia, for two years to recover their pay and repatriate them.

Rev Andy Bowerman, its regional director, said it was highly unusual for a tanker to run aground.

“There is a degree of urgency now for the men’s safety,” he said.

“The ship has no cargo so it is unlikely to split open and cause any more damage, but it is clear this can’t be left to rust and the crew need to be rescued.

“We are desperate to see some movement from all parties as the plight of the seafarers has become even more dangerous.

“It is a very real situation now. Once they are onshore we can work on the practicalities of getting the men home.”