For Second Mate Shehab Mohamed Mustafa and 28 others, Charleston Harbor might as well have been a jail. The Egyptian crew aboard the bulk carrier Edco was stranded at Charleston for almost four months after the vessel became entangled in a financial dispute.
Under a legal practice based on ancient maritime tradition, Edco was “arrested” by U.S. marshals after the ship’s Egyptian owner was sued by a Hong Kong company that claimed economic losses related to a sister ship.
While the lawsuit became bogged down in U.S. District Court, the 635-foot Edco and crew were stuck at Charleston under the watch of a court-appointed custodian and security guards. None of the 29 men could go ashore because none had a U.S. visa.
“We were prisoners — like we were not human,” Mustafa, 28, said in December, when he was back home in Alexandria, Egypt. “It was a very bad time.”
The ordeal at Charleston lasted from June to October. The ship’s owner, Misr Edco Shipping Co., was sued after its Edco Star was declared unseaworthy at the Suez Canal. Edco Star was carrying cement to Spain from China on behalf of Grand Max Marine Ltd. Grand Max sued Misr Edco Shipping on June 23, the same day Edco was at Charleston being resupplied after delivering a load of bulk salt from Chile.
During their ordeal, Edco’s crew had enough food but relied on donations from South Carolina charities for personal items, toiletries, health care and friendship. Much of the aid arrived via the Charleston Port and Seafarers’ Society.
The Rev. Mark Cooke, a Seafarers’ Society chaplain, said volunteers visited the ship regularly to deliver items such as razors, phone cards and doughnuts. Cooke said the crew would alternate between deep depression, when they had no idea when they could leave, and high spirits when news would come of a positive development in the case. Time after time, though, the much-anticipated breakthrough turned out to be a mirage.
“It was an emotional roller coaster for the crew,” Cooke said. “Something else would always go wrong.”
There were medical emergencies, too. The ship’s captain, Mohammed Ellewaa, was hospitalized with cardiac trouble and had a stent installed, Cooke said. The radio officer also went to the hospital for a stress test. Others were treated for anxiety and foot fungus.
The 29 trapped seamen became pawns in a maritime-law case with precedents dating back to the Middle Ages. In so-called “in rem” — Latin for “the thing” — jurisdiction, a ship can be treated like a person. It can therefore be arrested and held responsible for the debts of its owner.
Ship arrests are becoming more rare, said Douglas B. Stevenson, director of the Center for Seafarers’ Rights at the Seamen’s Church Institute in New York.
“It was a big problem in the ’90s, but in the last few years we hardly see any,”
|Second Mate Shehab Mohamed Mustafa said the crew felt like prisoners but were grateful to the Americans who came to their support. [Ahmed Rashed Mohamed]|
Stevenson said. “That’s primarily because shipping is making a lot of money right now, and the standards for bringing ships into the United States area really being raised — after 9/11 — so you don’t see as many substandard ships from substandard ship owners.”
When Edco was arrested in June, probably no one expected that it would still be stuck in Charleston in October. The crew heard that a letter of credit probably would free the ship quickly, but an insurance company filed a lawsuit demanding more than $238,000. All the while, Edco was incurring almost half a million dollars in dockage, security and other fees in Charleston.
A September auction was scheduled to sell the ship — and was cancelled. A Greek ship captain boarded the ship, possibly interested in buying it — he didn’t.
The persistent uncertainty weighed heavily on the crew. Mustafa wished he could merely get to a seamen’s club to play basketball and do a little shopping.
“It is hard not to go ashore,” Mustafa said. “When you stay on the ship for three or four months and all you see is your cabin and the deck; that’s very hard.”
Finally, in October, Misr Edco Shipping came through with a $2 million letter of credit and paid most of its expenses to Charleston’s Port Authority. It was enough to set the ship free. On the morning of Oct. 13, Edco and the delighted crew got underway, leaving Charleston astern and setting sail for Cartagena, Colombia.
For the first two months of the ordeal, the empty Edco was moored at a temporary anchorage in Charleston Harbor. Later, authorities moved the vessel to a former U.S. Navy pier.
The Seafarers’ Society arranged for a dentist and psychiatrist to visit the ship. Cooke hosted a Ramadan dinner for the grateful Muslim crew, who after three months were almost at their wits’ end.
“When they were out in the harbor, the Coast Guard actually took us out once or twice a week,” Cooke said. “Near the end, we were out there (at the pier) almost daily, because things got pretty intense.”
In the settlement of such cases, custodian fees and dock and maintenance costs are higher priorities than crew wages, Stevenson said. When a long-term ship arrest seems likely, seamen are sometimes better off leaving the vessel, he said.
“The problem is that the crewmembers typically are unwilling to do so, because they know that their wages are guaranteed by that ship, and if they leave it, they risk their wages,” Stevenson said. “We encourage them to cut their losses and go home and have their rights defended in court.”
Stevenson said there should be more humanitarian safeguards for stranded crews. He said seafarers’ identification cards would ensure that crews be able to go ashore.
“Our viewpoint is that when it happens to one crew, it’s a big problem,” said Stevenson, whose center provides the only full-time free legal aid for mariners.
“The U.S. ought to require that foreign vessels coming into the U.S. must provide some sort of security guaranteeing that they can pay up to two months of wages for the crew,” he said. “It would raise the responsibility level of each ship owner.”
Mustafa, who has four years of experience as a seaman, and a few others flew home to Egypt from Colombia. They received their wages. Mustafa planned to rest at his Alexandria home for a few weeks. He has no hesitation about resuming his work at sea.
“This is the life of the seaman,” Mustafa said. “I will go back to sea — but I will go back with another company.”
The Egyptians are very grateful for the generous help of the South Carolinians. Mustafa said they handed out phone cards and lent the crew a PlayStation console.
“Thank you to all the American people. They helped make things OK for us,” Mustafa said. “I hope to go back to Charleston and visit Mr. Mark.”