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All at sea: captain of stranded ship

- Calcuttan in command of vessel stuck off Dubai for a year

A 53-year-old Calcuttan has been forced to play Captain Phillips aboard an LPG vessel stranded off the Dubai coast for nearly a year because the shipping company hasn’t been able to renew its sailing certificate.

Captain Aninda Sengupta had joined the crew of Maharishi Devatreya last November after being assured by his employer that the ship would get a new certificate from London-based Lloyd’s Register before the old one expired on December 29, 2013.

He has been holed up “like a hostage” since, unable to desert the ship because it’s his responsibility to protect it and ensure the well-being of his 15-member crew, many of whom have completed a year of being almost away from civilisation.

“You can well imagine our situation. We have been restricted to this 3,600sqm of space aboard the ship for months and some of us for a year. It’s like being in captivity,” Sengupta’s voice crackled over the phone during bits of conversation disrupted by poor telecom connectivity.

Sengupta’s job may not entail battling Somali pirates like Captain Richard Phillips heroically did in 2009 — the American sailor’s story was made into a Hollywood film in 2013 — but his is no less challenging a task in terms of keeping the crew’s morale afloat amid growing uncertainty.

“We haven’t been paid our salaries in seven months. The ship owner sends us consignments of food but that’s it. We see the same set of people all the time…and there is hardly any work except general maintenance. We spend time eating, chatting, playing carrom and watching TV,” he said.

The worst part of the ordeal for the crew has been staying away from their families with no sign of the impasse ending.

Sengupta’s wife Nandini, a teacher based in Visakhapatnam, said not everyone would be mentally strong enough to tackle such uncertainty. “It’s a difficult time for us. He (her husband) had never before faced such a problem in his 36-year-long career,” said Nandini, who had studied at Modern High and Calcutta University.

Nandini’s only contact with her husband has been over the phone. She tries calling him every day, though telecom connectivity in the sea can be fickle. Video chatting over Skype is ruled out.

Maharishi Devatreya hasn’t moved from where it is anchored — 12 nautical miles or around 22.2km off Port Rashid in Dubai — since July 2013. Mumbai-based Varun Shipping, a company registered in Cyprus and listed on the Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE), was supposed to have moved the ship to a dry dock for a physical verification by Lloyd’s officials as part of the re-certification process latest by December 2013.

“It appears that the owner does not have the money to do the needful. As a result, we are being kept like watchmen here, guarding his property,” Sengupta said.

Like all ships, an LPG vessel requires certification from international agencies before sailing out. Maharishi Devatreya was to have renewed its certificate from Lloyd’s Register before carrying LPG from the port to whichever destination it had been contracted for.

The certificate is basically an endorsement that a ship is sailworthy. If the mandatory inspection reveals any fault, it has to be repaired, which would then add to the shipping company’s costs.

During the January-March quarter, Varun Shipping posted a loss of Rs 120.04 crore, according to information available on the BSE website.

Yudhishthir D. Khatau, chairman and managing director of Varun Shipping that specialises in the tanker business, did not respond to several calls from Metro to his mobile phone.

Sources said Varun Shipping had been doing well until the tide turned two years ago. The company apparently ran into trouble after being forced to repair ships at a cost higher than estimated.

“But it still does not make business sense to keep a ship stranded. It should be sailing to earn revenue. It is a strange thing, though not unusual,” a trade veteran said. “Whatever the condition of the shipping company, the human aspect is important. They (the crew) must be brought back home.”

Captain Sengupta warned that the “mental health” of some of the crew members could deteriorate rapidly if they were not taken back home immediately.

“They may suffer from traumatic stress disorder. Being sailors, they have been able to withstand stress till now. Any person not used to being on sea for long would have been affected much earlier,” psychiatrist Ranadip Ghosh Roy said.

Even if they are suddenly allowed to leave, the crew cannot fly out of Dubai because their visas have lapsed. “The crew can only go to the port or enter Dubai on a temporary pass, though that option can’t be used because the ship is anchored far away. In the event of a medical emergency, a crew member can be hospitalised on shore under the same rules,” a source said.

The option of abandoning Maharishi Devatreya doesn’t exist because the certification impasse doesn’t come under any of the 16 stipulated distress situations that can justify deserting the ship under international seafarer rules.

Sengupta, whose contract with Varun Shipping expired in March, knows that the one choice available to him is to remain Captain Courageous.

What message do you have for Capt. Aninda Sengupta? Tell ttmetro@abpmail.com