Ghost ships

In the last two weeks, two ships filled to the brim with hundreds of Syrian refugees have been brought in to Italian ports.  The ships seem to have left Eastern Mediterranean, and sailed parallel to the Turkish coast, picking up most passengers from Mersin or other ports in Turkey, and arriving in Greek waters, heading towards the heel of Italy.  And then been abandoned by their crew.  Both ships, Blue Sky M and Ezadeen, seem to have carried middle class Syrians who paid  up to $5000 per person to be conveyed to Italy, 970 passengers in the former and 450 in the latter.


There are three things about the story that strike me.  First is the fact that it will be nearly impossible to track down the ownership of the ship.  Or who has made the vast sums of money (the first ship’s passengers paid $4.5 million in toto!) to bring these people to fortress Europe.   As Rose George writes in her mostly excellent Deep Sea and Foreign Going,

Most ship owners operate decent ships that are safe, and pay their crews properly. But if you are unscrupulous, there is no better place to hide than behind a flag. The ITF calls flags of convenience a ‘corporate veil’. The Economist, a supporter of free markets, and so surely a supporter of this freest market of all, calls them ‘cat’s cradles of ownership structures’. I call them a back door, easy to slip through if necessary. This facility was best exposed by the oil tanker Erika, which broke up off the coast of Brittany in 1999, polluting 250 miles of French coastline. The tanker had been chartered by French oil giant Total, but its owner was unknown. As expected, French authorities immediately began an investigation to track him or her down. They first found a company named Tevere Shipping based in Malta. But Tevere Shipping had outsourced Erika’s management to a company named Panship Management and Services, based in Ravenna, Italy. Panship had chartered the ship to Selmont International, registered in the offshore haven of Nassau, which was represented by Amarship of Lugano, Switzerland. Thirty per cent of Tevere Shipping’s capital was owned by Agosta Investments Corporation of Monrovia, Liberia. It goes on and on, a dizzying Russian doll of ownership. By the end, French investigators found 12 shell companies standing between the ship and its ‘beneficial owner’. Many of the companies were a brass plate in a Maltese or Monrovian street, but that brass plate can act as a mighty drawbridge, hauled up, when flag states provide such anonymity. All the power of the French judicial investigators could go no further. When Erika’s owner finally came forward weeks later – he claimed he had been skiing and had not realized he now owned an environmental catastrophe – he was revealed as a London-based Neapolitan, Giuseppe Savarese. The BBC reporter Tom Mangold later asked Savarese why his ship’s ownership structure was so complex. I only read the transcript of the interview, but I can hear the shrug in Savarese’s voice. ‘That is normal in shipping.’

Blue Sky M flies a Moldovan flag, and Ezzadin is at the moment flying the Sierra Leonean flag, both considered by the International Transportation-workers’ Federation (ITF) to be flags of convenience.  ITF has long had a campaign against flags of convenience. While Blue Sky M is a general cargo carrier, Ezadeen was a livestock carrier before it was employed to transport migrants and asylum-seekers.  Ezadeen was built in 1966, Blue Sky M in 1976; both ancient in ship years [the average age of ocean-going ships is 22 years].  This is the second thing that struck me about the story: how unseaworthy these ships were.  And again it reminded me of a harrowing story that Rose George tells about an unsafe and ancient livestock carrier that crashed near Tripoli in Lebanon in 2009.  Forty four human lives were lost,  and 39 sailors were rescued. 10,224 sheep and 17,932 cattle also perished. Beiruti friends told me about cows washing up on the shore for weeks afterwards.  Here is Rose George’s story:

“Welfare organizations dislike livestock carriers profoundly, and with reason. (So do Somali pirates: they have captured then released a few livestock carriers without asking for ransom. Too much hassle.) The welfare groups criticize the overcrowded conditions, the lack of food and water, the inadequate bedding for the beasts. They point to countless reports of swine, sheep or cattle being crushed on their journey and think that shipping frozen meat would be more humane. […]

“Nicolás Achard describes conditions [aboard the livestock freighter Danny FII] as ‘horrible’. He was working mostly with the animals, whose pens were on decks below sea level. Although she had passed the safety inspections required by Panama, the flag state, Danny FII by many accounts was rusting, old, decrepit. The decks were in such a bad state that regularly the floor would cave in and the leg of a heifer would appear from the deck above, an inch from Nicolás’ head. He was used to working in the open with animals on Uruguayan ranches; he didn’t much like this confined, cramped, noisy, smelly ship, but he needed the money.

“The journey from Montevideo to Lebanon took three weeks with no land calls. On 16 December, the crew watched Titanic together. The following day, they prepared the ship for port. After so many days at sea, the animals had made a colossal amount of mess. Nicolás remembers that they stopped about 13 miles off Tripoli. He isn’t sure about the sequence of events, but thinks that a storm came, and that the captain thought it was a good opportunity to clean up. This seems an odd decision from such an experienced captain. Perhaps they were already cleaning and the storm came. The usual cleansing method is to tip the ship slightly and hose the muck into the sea. But all weight on ships, whether ballast water, cargo or animals, must be carefully distributed to maintain stability. […]

“On deck 2, working with a couple of colleagues, Nicolás began to hear ‘weird sounds’. It was livestock on the decks above falling over. With his crewmates, he headed up to deck 6, above the water line. There, they could see that the ship was tilting far more than it should be. It looked drunk. More crew gathered and looked worried together. Then everything got worse very quickly.[…]

“On deck 13, the Uruguayans knew they had to jump. They were in work clothes – overalls, heavy boots – and Nicolás told the non-swimmer Guillermo to remove his boots. They would only weigh him down. They ‘fell into the sea’, a three-metre descent. ‘Then we just sat and watched the thing disappear.’ Nicolás describes Danny FII as sinking ‘like the Titanic’, but that sinking had taken almost three hours. Danny FII disappeared in 20 minutes, and became the 37th ship to sink that year.

“In the water, Nicolàs saw that someone had managed to chuck a life raft into the sea and that it was 100 metres away, so he swam for it, front crawl. But he found it unexpectedly difficult to make progress. There were huge waves, and later he learned that when you are wearing a lifejacket it is easier to swim on your back. There were cattle in the water. Pounding waves, darkness, people screaming, howling and thrashing beasts everywhere: it sounds like a section of hell that Dante forgot to include. Nicolàs saw a Pakistani crewmate holding on to the tail of a heifer as a flotation device.[…]

“After eight hours, Nicolás and his companion were rescued by an Italian naval vessel that flew a UN flag. Others were picked up by Lebanese naval vessels. A Royal Navy helicopter had also arrived from Cyprus to assist. The Italians gave their guests good and immediate medical attention, thermal clothing, food and hot-water baths, then sent them by helicopter to Tripoli. There, the ship’s managers paid for a hotel, but most survivors had arrived with no possessions beyond rubber boots given to them by their Italian rescuers. Luckily the Uruguayan ambassador provided his citizens with clothes, enough for them to donate some to their Pakistani and Filipino shipmates, whose embassies gave them nothing. Only on the last day of their time ashore did Falcon Point International, the owners, provide a pair of trousers and socks and shoes for each survivor. Forty-three men returned from the foundering of Danny FII. Alan Atkinson, Gary Baker and Captain John Milloy did not.[…]”

So, this is the kind of ship that 450 Syrian migrants had boarded.    As a Guardian story recounts:

The Ezadeen is a former livestock carrier that has gone through at least seven changes of name since it first started operating as a cargo ship in 1966. Its most recent owner – officially at least – appears to have been a merchant marine company based in Lebanon, but somewhere along the way it seems people-smugglers took control of it.

Made in Germany, the 1,474-tonne vessel has been flying under the flag of Sierra Leone for the past four years and was previously under that of Syria. A sample of its docking history over the past year also reflects the disparate jurisdictions that such ships pass through. In March last year it was in the Romanian port of Midia, before later visiting Beirut, Dubai, Beirut again, Aden and the Egyptian ports of Suez and Port Said.

Blue Sky M had had its safety certificate withdrawn, BBC reported.  Who were the crew?  The people on Ezadeen reported that the crew had remained masked throughout the journey.  The passengers had no idea how to identify them. I am sure the language of communication had been an international variant of English.  The “captain” of Blue Sky M had himself been a Syrian refugee, a former ship’s captain now desperate to find refuge in Italy:

Rani said his participation in the people smuggling venture began when he left Lebanon, where he had sought refuge from the brutal war ravaging Syria, to spend time in Turkey. Once there, Rani was contacted by an acquaintance who knew the Syrian had worked as a ship captain. After the pair met in Istanbul to conclude their deal, Rani was taken with three other men aboard the Blue Sky M, which then travelled to Turkey’s Mersin port close to the Syrian border.  After waiting in Mersin two days for his “cargo”, Rani says the ship took on an initial group of 30 people the third day, followed by a succession of new arrivals that totalled nearly 800 by December 25.

In the case of Blue Sky M, neither the Turkish nor Greek customs or coast guard officials inspected the ship (see this excellent AFP story). The Italians seem to have arrested around 4 crew members of Blue Sky M.  Whether they have discovered who the crew of Ezadeen is – or where they may be- is not yet reported.

But the third thing that strikes me about the story is the idea of a ship without a crew.  From the Rime of the Ancient Mariner to Conrad’s The Shadowline a ship wandering aimlessly in vast oceans must invoke some atavistic fear – of loneliness and abandonment.  Sometimes, this fear takes on a mock horror element – as with the debunked myth-making around an abandoned Russian ship full of cannibal rats.  And sometimes, it takes on the real tinge of horror, as in Edgar Allan Poe’s very problematic The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket which, despite its myriad faults, has a terrifying scene about a Dutch ghost ship:

“The vessel in sight was a large hermaphrodite brig, of a Dutch build, and painted black, with a tawdry gilt figure-head. She had evidently seen a good deal of rough weather, and, we supposed, had suffered much in the gale which had proved so disastrous to ourselves; for her foretopmast was gone, and some of her starboard bulwarks. …

“No person was seen upon her decks until she arrived within about a quarter of a mile of us. We then saw three seamen, whom by their dress we took to be Hollanders. Two of these were lying on some old sails near the forecastle, and the third, who appeared to be looking at us with great curiosity, was leaning over the starboard bow near the bowsprit. This last was a stout and tall man, with a very dark skin. He seemed by his manner to be encouraging us to have patience, nodding to us in a cheerful although rather odd way, and smiling constantly, so as to display a set of the most brilliantly white teeth. As his vessel drew nearer, we saw a red flannel cap which he had on fall from his head into the water; but of this he took little or no notice, continuing his odd smiles and gesticulations. I relate these things and circumstances minutely, and I relate them, it must be understood, precisely as they appeared to us.

“The brig came on slowly, and now more steadily than before, and—I cannot speak calmly of this event—our hearts leaped up wildly within us, and we poured out our whole souls in shouts and thanksgiving to God for the complete, unexpected, and glorious deliverance that was so palpably at hand. Of a sudden, and all at once, there came wafted over the ocean from the strange vessel (which was now close upon us) a smell, a stench, such as the whole world has no name for—no conception of—hellish—utterly suffocating—insufferable, inconceivable. I gasped for breath, and turning to my companions, perceived that they were paler than marble. But we had now no time left for question or surmise—the brig was within fifty feet of us, and it seemed to be her intention to run under our counter, that we might board her without putting out a boat. We rushed aft, when, suddenly, a wide yaw threw her off full five or six points from the course she had been running, and, as she passed under our stern at the distance of about twenty feet, we had a full view of her decks. Shall I ever forget the triple horror of that spectacle? Twenty-five or thirty human bodies, among whom were several females, lay scattered about between the counter and the galley in the last and most loathsome state of putrefaction. We plainly saw that not a soul lived in that fated vessel! Yet we could not help shouting to the dead for help! Yes, long and loudly did we beg, in the agony of the moment, that those silent and disgusting images would stay for us, would not abandon us to become like them, would receive us among their goodly company! We were raving with horror and despair—thoroughly mad through the anguish of our grievous disappointment.

“As our first loud yell of terror broke forth, it was replied to by something, from near the bowsprit of the stranger, so closely resembling the scream of a human voice that the nicest ear might have been startled and deceived. At this instant another sudden yaw brought the region of the forecastle for a moment into view, and we beheld at once the origin of the sound. We saw the tall stout figure still leaning on the bulwark, and still nodding his head to and fro, but his face was now turned from us so that we could not behold it. His arms were extended over the rail, and the palms of his hands fell outward. His knees were lodged upon a stout rope, tightly stretched, and reaching from the heel of the bowsprit to a cathead. On his back, from which a portion of the shirt had been torn, leaving it bare, there sat a huge sea-gull, busily gorging itself with the horrible flesh, its bill and talons deep buried, and its white plumage spattered all over with blood. As the brig moved farther round so as to bring us close in view, the bird, with much apparent difficulty, drew out its crimsoned head, and, after eyeing us for a moment as if stupefied, arose lazily from the body upon which it had been feasting, and, flying directly above our deck, hovered there a while with a portion of clotted and liver-like substance in its beak. The horrid morsel dropped at length with a sullen splash immediately at the feet of Parker. May God forgive me, but now, for the first time, there flashed through my mind a thought, a thought which I will not mention, and I felt myself making a step toward the ensanguined spot. I looked upward, and the eyes of Augustus met my own with a degree of intense and eager meaning which immediately brought me to my senses. I sprang forward quickly, and, with a deep shudder, threw the frightful thing into the sea.

“The body from which it had been taken, resting as it did upon the rope, had been easily swayed to and fro by the exertions of the carnivorous bird, and it was this motion which had at first impressed us with the belief of its being alive. As the gull relieved it of its weight, it swung round and fell partially over, so that the face was fully discovered. Never, surely, was any object so terribly full of awe! The eyes were gone, and the whole flesh around the mouth, leaving the teeth utterly naked. This, then, was the smile which had cheered us on to hope! this the—but I forbear. The brig, as I have already told, passed under our stern, and made its way slowly but steadily to leeward.”

And of course the passengers of Ezadeen and Blue Sky M thankfully escaped the fate reserved for the passenger and crew of Poe’s storyship, but not so the thousands of other migrants who crash on shores and coastlines (as the two aforementioned ships would have, had there not been intervention), or drown in the sea.  The real horror of our time is not flesh-eating seagulls, the real horror of our time is the quiet, forgotten, unseen drowning of thousands of migrants in the Mediterranean.  And if Mare Nostrum, the Italian/European plan to rescue drowning migrants, is set adrift, this horror is only sure to proliferate.

Update: I think it is important to note that in the midst of this horror, ordinary Italians have shown how solidarity, how hospitality and friendship, is actually the fundamental sentiment underlying the encounter with the stranger:

“Everyone was partying, or thinking about going to a party, for the last day of the year,” says Mimma Antonacci, a Red Cross spokeswoman in the southern Italian city of Lecce. But when news came of the ship, she says, people stopped “and they asked us what they can do. And when they saw the people arriving, they started cooking.”

Monasteries and other religious buildings have opened their doors to provide shelter, she says, and locals also chipped in with lots of donations.

“Many people came with clothes, shoes, food. Everybody helped us. Socks, shoes for children, even cookies and milk,” Antonacci says. “They don’t ask for anything. They do it in silence, without any clamor or TV [coverage.] They work hard, no matter what day of the year, no matter who was partying or not. The solidarity here is wonderful.”