Tanker crew stranded off UAE coast tell of return to a changed world
Sailors on the ‘MT Iba’ have not stepped foot on dry land since 2017. They tell Nick Webster of the extraordinary mental trauma they endured
The haunted look in their eyes and the ragged clothes worn by the five abandoned sailors on the oil tanker grounded in Umm Al Quwain betrayed the horrors of their four years trapped at sea.
Stepping on board the battered 5,000-tonne vessel gave a stark indication of the ordeal faced by the crew of the Panama-flagged MT Iba.
Two of the men, first engineer Nay Win, 53, and Pakistani second engineer Riasect Ali, 52, had been on board since 2017.
Three others, Vinay Kumar, 31, Monchand Sheikh, 26, and Nirmal Singh-Bora, 22, all from India, joined the crew in late 2018.
When I talk with my parents I cry, and they do too
They have not seen their families since or been paid after the vessel’s owner, Alco Shipping, ran into financial trouble.
They spent 43 months at sea and 32 months without pay. The company intends to tow the ship and will try to sell it to recoup losses and pay the crew.
Although detached from a world ravaged by coronavirus, they described life on the Iba as a “living hell”.
Strong winds tore the ship free from its steel anchor in the early hours of Friday.
As the crew's possessions in the ship’s quarters clattered around them and the vessel began to list, terror set in.
Their ordeal ended hours later when the empty 100-metre tanker, which had drifted three kilometres to shore, became grounded a hundred metres from an idyllic public beach.
“Every day we prayed, it was our only hope,” said Mr Kumar, a second engineer, who has managed to stay in regular contact with his wife, Pushpa and two children, Nabia, 6, and Mukund, 3.
“We have all tried to stay strong, but it has been so hard.
“I know the children are no longer at school because of the coronavirus. It is frustrating I have not been able to help out.”
Thanks to an emergency food drop by the Mission to Seafarers charity, aided by volunteers from the Dubai Offshore Sailing Club, the men were looking forward to eating fresh eggs, fruit and vegetables for the first time in five months.
In that time, they survived on little more than chickpeas, rice and water.
Mr Kumar's thoughts have turned to being reunited with his young family in Uttar Pradesh as he hopes his misery on the Iba is at an end.
“In summer, it was impossible to sleep,” he said. “It was like a living hell. The deck was so hot, and there was no relief inside without air-conditioning.
“Some of the younger guys just disconnected from the reality of our lives at sea.”
Why can't they leave the ship?
For several reasons, the men cannot leave the vessel. One crew member, Mr Win, from Myanmar, doesn't have a passport, which remains with his former employer.
Were he to attempt to leave the ship and enter Emirates, or any country, he would be turned away.
Furthermore, international law prevents ships being abandoned as they would become a shipping hazard, and potentially an environmental one.
Special permission is also required to go ashore. Last year, a crew on another stranded vessel tried to sail ashore in a lifeboat but were turned away by Emirati coastguard.
Finally, the men are collectively owed about $170,000 in wages, and hope in vain to still collect some of that. Their families have racked up major debts in their absence and they have mortgages and school fees to pay.
If they are towed to Dubai Maritime City, permission for them to depart the vessel can be secured by the authorities.
A summer of hell
The youngest crewman was ordinary seaman Nirmal Singh-Bora, from India’s northern state of Uttarakhand.
At just 22, what started out as a young man’s adventure into a new world turned into a nightmare. He has not been paid for his time on board.
“I miss my family a lot,” said Mr Singh-Bora, who is single. “Every day I would wake up with an expectation of receiving some good news that we would be sent home.
“But all our days were wasted. What could I tell my family when I did not know when I would be home?”
A small section of the vessel’s deck was reserved for exercise, with simple dumb-bells and rudimentary weights the only equipment on board.
There was little room for running or a game of cricket. Conversation was the men’s salvation and kept them strong, particularly during the hostile summer months of 45°C heat and humidity. They have developed a bond that will last a lifetime.
At the height of summer, the men took turns sleeping on the few raised beds outside on the deck. Those on the floor had to contend with cockroaches and other insects.
Monchand Sheikh, from Kolkata, has been on the tanker for 25 months and is another young sailor once filled with excitement by thoughts of a life at sea. Those dreams turned into a nightmare.
He was told he would be paid in full at the end of his contract, but has received just Dh1,500.
“When I started this job, I was excited,” he said.
“I am not from a rich household, I come from a very poor family.
“That’s why I came here, so I could build my own house some day and make my parents happy.
“When I talk with them I cry, and they do too. Now, they just want me back home.”
Routine and keeping up morale
Routine was a crucial foundation for keeping the men mentally well during their time on the Iba.
Each was assigned daily tasks to maintain the vessel, in the hope it would be sold for a good price so they will recover what they are owed.
Keeping up morale was left in the hands of Mr Ali and Mr Win, both seamen of many years' experience. Neither had endured such desperate times at sea before.
“Spending so long with these guys on the ship, we have become very close friends,” Mr Ali said. “This experience has united us.”
His wife, Rubina Kousar, and three children, Hasanin, 22, Saqlain, 20, and Samared, 14, have been in regular contact – but Mr Ali is wary of how he will be welcomed in Punjab after being away for so long.
“I have spoken with them regularly, but it has become more difficult for them and for me as time has passed,” he said.
“It is hard for me to say, 'I cannot come home yet'. They don’t understand.”
Without an experienced captain or master seaman on board, seniority fell to Mr Win, the chief engineer.
He maintained contact with emergency support vessels from Sharjah and the Federal Transport Authority, each day hoping for news that the seamen could sign off and come ashore.
A distress call in the early hours of Friday as the ship broke free of its anchor was the start of what he hopes will be a journey home to Myanmar.
“The ship rolled to 45 degrees and everything inside the cabin was falling over and breaking,” he said.
“The kitchen equipment was smashing around us.
“The wind was just too strong. We asked four times to be brought in, because there was an earlier problem with the anchor.
“We knew it was in bad condition. Not even the lifeboat worked, so we knew we had to stay on the ship at all costs.
“It was very dangerous for us, but at least we can now hopefully go home.”
Updated: January 27, 2021 11:35 AM