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Cape Town - On April 27 last year the E Whale arrived in Table Bay.
Now, more than a year later, the ship is still at anchor off Cape Town and 17 crewmen continue to live aboard the hulking vessel, unable to leave.
The ship has been arrested and has remained anchored in Table Bay because of several outstanding debts the ship’s owners have neglected to pay on the E Whale’s sister ship, the A Whale.
The E Whale was arrested as soon as it docked in Cape Town and has since been arrested by three other creditors.
The crew members must keep the ship functioning until financial matters with the vessel’s owners, Today Makes Tomorrow International Shipping, are sorted out.
Only 3km from shore, the crew are trapped with little to distract them for up to four months at a time.
“We are trapped in jail here,” said Joseph Valiyaveethil, a 39-year-old electrical engineer.
When the Cape Times visited the ship, crew members were excited to have newcomers on board, although some remained despondent about their continued isolation.
Visitors can get aboard the vessel by climbing into a small netted basket, and being lifted by a crane 33m into the air on to the ship’s deck.
The only other way to enter or exit the 172 146 ton ship is by helicopter.
Some of the crew said they were overcome with worry over their families’ wellbeing.
Valiyaveethil has two children between the ages of four and six whose tuition is paid for by his engineering salary.
He also supports his parents who live with his wife and children in Kerala, India.
“In my life this is the worst conditions I have lived in. I am praying to God now all the time. Mentally we are weak, we are totally stressed.”
He has been working aboard the E Whale since December, unpaid.
“We cannot sleep, we walk around like mad fellows until 2am because we cannot rest, just circling the ship.”
The engineer says there is not much to do on the boat. There is a TV but no cable services, some old books, and a few board games.
Captain Abdullah Al Mahmud said some of the crew members were frustrated and desperate to go home.
“It’s very bad to have this kind of insanity on a boat when we are so far out,” said Al Mahmud. He has spent 25 years at sea and nearly three months aboard the E Whale.
Tensions are rising as the crew continue to work without pay. Leaving the ship is not an option except for dire medical need.
The crew have not been paid since December.
Maritime attorney Alan Goldberg of Rose Street Chambers is working with the crew to settle the wage dispute, repatriate the seamen, and sell the vessel to a new owner.
The bank he has been working with agreed recently to pay the crew all of their overdue wages. Negotiations were expected to be finalised by the end of the week, he said.
The bank that has a mortgage on the E Whale will soon issue an application to the Western Cape High Court to sell the vessel, said deputy sheriff of Cape Town East, Andre Southey. Once the court approved the application to sell, it would take three to four months to find a buyer, he said.
At that point, the crew will no longer need to remain on board.
But for now, there is no way out.