For the crew of MV Anastasia, a ship owned by the Swiss-Italian Mediterranean Shipping Company, it has been a harrowing six months. The ship arrived in India on February 14 after leaving the Caofeidian Port in northern China where it had been anchored since September 20, waiting to discharge its cargo, coal from Australia.
Apart from the repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic, the crew was also caught in the geopolitics of China’s strained relations with Australia and India, the Indian Express , even though Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin had denied any connection between the ship’s situation and his country’s foreign relations.
Newslaundry spoke to two members of the crew about their ordeal that lasted almost 147 days. Of the 18-member crew of MV Anastasia, 16 are Indians. All of them have managed to get off the ship now.
Anand Fernandez, 46, from Mumbai and Gaurav Singh, 29, from Pune are reunited with their families now, but the ordeal has taken a toll on them. Gaurav said that he had a work contract with the shipping company from November 15, 2019 to April 2020. He boarded the ship in Jordan and travelled across all the globe, including to the United States, Netherlands, South Africa, Australia, and China. Once the Covid outbreak began, he and other crew members were unable to disembark once their contracts expired due to the lockdown many countries imposed.
The situation got worse when they arrived in China carrying 90,000 metric tonnes of Australian coking coal worth about Rs 200 crore.
“We departed from Australia on July 19 and arrived in China on August 3. The normal procedure is that once you arrived at a Chinese port there would be an anchoring delay of a week to 10 days because of congestion,” Gaurav said. “A Chinese agent appointed by the receiver of the cargo informed us that there would be further berthing delays due to the pandemic. Six months later, we were still stuck.”
He added that the crew had heard rumours about hostile relations between China and Australia and asked to be relieved. “Our company arranged for us to sign off in Japan in September. But the Chinese officials did not allow us to depart from their waters. They said they would incur a commercial loss if they allowed it.”
The crew on the ship.
The crew reached out to the International Labour Organization and the International Transport Workers' Federation. The ILO put out a regarding the situation, urging immediate action. But nothing happened.
Gaurav was supposed to be married in October, but he couldn’t get off the ship. He has been a sailor for 11 years but he was still not prepared for this harrowing experience, he said.
Frustration and helplessness hung over the ship and Anand, father of a 13-year-old boy, could not escape it. “All we saw was water as far as the eye could see. Thankfully, I was able to talk to my family every day, otherwise I don't know how I would have coped,” he said. “The company had arranged online therapy for us, but it did not help. I did not feel like a human being, but like a trapped animal. It was a complete violation of my human rights.”
The crew after they managed to get off the ship and head to Japan.
Gaurav said several crew members above 50 began experiencing pain in their joints after having been onboard for so long. Some could not even lift their hands, he said, while a few were even confined to bed.
“People also began getting skin infections due to the high chlorine content in the water,” he added. “Our captain contacted the Chinese for medical assistance, but they refused citing Covid precautions.”
Gaurav said it was challenging for the crew to stay motivated, “We were mentally disturbed and physically exhausted. A member of the crew even tried to slit his wrist. He told us if he could not sign off, at least his dead body would be able to reach home. That was the mental state on the ship. We had a gym and ping pong tables but it all lay abandoned; people barely left their cabins. It was like a ghost ship,” he said.
In December, Gaurav contacted his brother-in-law Shivraj Singh to start a petition on change.org. Thanks to the petition and a social media and news coverage spurred by it, Gaurav and Anand were finally able to get back home.
On February 3, they received an email from the Indian embassy in Beijing that China would allow them to perform a crew change. At 4 am on February 4, they left Chinese waters for Japan, reaching on February 10.
“On February 14, we reached India. I felt like I was flying. I can still see the smiling faces of the crew. I cannot explain it, I felt like the king of the world,” Anand said.
The crew being welcomed in Mumbai after they flew in from Japan.
Gaurav was equally elated. “Right before this call, I found out that my sister had given birth to a baby boy, so meeting him is the first thing that I am going to do once quarantine ends. The second is to eat my mother’s sambar. I love her sambar.”
Gaurav won’t be returning to the sea anytime soon. “I don’t want to think about the sea or a ship for at least a year. I will work on a startup for a while. But to be frank I don’t know any other job apart from navigation. I have studied it and I love it,” he said, adding that unless there was a significant policy reform, he did not see himself returning to the profession.
“Our maritime organisations, especially the ILO’s Maritime Labour Convention should mandate a clause that is binding between a shipping company and the receiver of the cargo that sailors must not sail for longer than a certain specified period. We are not slaves but essential frontline workers and must be treated as such,” Gaurav said. He added that the law must be applied uniformly across countries, without discrimination.
Anand echoed Gaurav’s sentiments. “Sometimes I feel like if this is the condition, then it is better for me to stop sailing,” he said. “I cannot stay like this for so long without my family. The fact that I had to suffer the way I did without having committed any crime haunts me.”