Captain Refuses To Abandon Ship After Eight Months Stranded In Sussex Port

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[picture: Mikhail Polyakov is owed almost £18,000 in wages. Only one crew member remains on the ship with him. Photograph: Graham Turner for the Guardian]

Mikhail Polyakov aboard the MV Independent, believes deserting the vessel would result in him and his crew going unpaid, reports The Guardian.

Mikhail Polyakov's 40-year career at sea has taken him from novice sailor in a Soviet outpost to the helm of a decommissioned East German warship. But, for nearly eight months, the experienced Russian captain has been stranded in limbo in the unlikely waters of Shoreham-by-Sea, West Sussex.

In a standoff which highlights the vulnerability of seafarers worldwide, Polyakov has been stuck on an impounded ship after Independent Shipping, the British company that hired him for its small fleet, failed to pay a £32,000 fuel bill.

The MV Independent was served with an arrest notice in January by the Admiralty marshal and cannot leave port. Crew wages already owing went unpaid. Over the ensuing months, most of the nine-strong crew left the boat, some paying their own way home to Russia or Ukraine. But Polyakov did not want to desert his ship, and his long wait began.

Across the water from where the Independent is moored, boats have continued to deliver gravel for Dudman, the construction materials suppliers whose director, Steve Dudman, co-owned Independent Shipping.

The firm had sourced the crew for its ill-fated venture through a Latvian agency. Wages for its kind of boats – coasters mainly operating short distances between ports – were too low to attract enough British crew. But in Odessa and Kaliningrad, where unemployment is high, there are sailors willing to work all hours for long stretches at sea for £900 a month.

Polyakov is owed almost £18,000; the wages owed to his crew are much smaller. Only one man, a Ukrainian able seaman, Igor Aleynykov, who speaks little English, remains on the ship with him. Aleynykov transferred from another of Independent's ships, the Torrent, which has also been seized, along the south coast in Rye. Four Russian and Ukrainian seamen remain stranded there.

Another four are waiting for funds to leave the MV Shoreham, docked in Santander, Spain. The firm's two other crews left when their boats were sold for scrap.

In Shoreham-by-Sea, with the waters calm, Polyakov is in good spirits. He jokes that he has spent a year in UK waters and will be able to marry an English woman and enter the country. His wife in Russia has her doctor's salary, although his son has also been left without work in Kaliningrad.

Aleynykov has two young children being cared for by his wife in Izmail, southern Ukraine, and without his wages the family have slid into debt. His studies to become a navigator provide some focus, but tuition fees are $1,000 (£646) and he is not sure he will be back at the academy to sit the exam in March. An international charity, the Apostleship of the Sea, is raising an emergency grant to help his family.

Day to day, the pair have a strange existence. With immigration law allowing sailors into port towns, but without a full visa, the world of someone who has sailed ships from the Baltic to Africa is strangely circumscribed. Local Apostleship volunteers take them out to the shops, but days are spent mainly on the impounded ship, checking the ropes and auxiliary engines.

The last qualified engineer left some time ago; Polyakov now anxiously tends the engine room to keep the water and fuel topped up in the auxiliary engines powering the ship. A dead battery means no one can restart them should they fail: "I look after them as if [they were] a child." The hot-water pump has already failed, as have some lights.

The risk of fire aboard the deteriorating ship troubles him, as do the ropes. It is illegal to leave a ship unmanned in a tidal dock, as the owners and the captain are aware. When the winds cross Shoreham from the south, the 2,000-tonne ship rocks and strains at its mooring, Polyakov says, and there is a real danger of it breaking free without monitoring.

The notices of arrest are pinned to the redundant bridge, where Polyakov looks out across the empty deck of what was once destroyer number 41 in the navy of the former German Democratic Republic. A loading vehicle still sits aboard from when the converted Independent – now officially registered in the port of Moroni in the Comoros islands, off the south-east coast of Africa – shipped cement across the seas.

Other boats now deposit crushed stone on the forecourt of Dudman, just across the port. In Dudman's offices, Chris Grosscurth, general manager of Independent Shipping, says the activity is not connected to the firm that employs Polyakov. The new companies are not financially linked, although Steve Dudman is a shareholder in both. Recession saw contract work dry up, Grosscurth says: "We were struggling like any other normal company."

He says all the crew will be paid in full when they have the funds. "It's a terrible situation. But the best thing we can do is sell the ships," he adds.

Interested parties have come to view the boat. Grosscurth says the two men are given fortnightly sums for food and fuel. Some back wages were paid in March; the firm gave another £5,000 to Polyakov in July, but the captain chose to forward it to another member of his unpaid crew.

Such situations are not unique. Polyakov himself has already been through a similar situation in South Africa; at least here he feels closer to his wife, who rings his mobile for short chats. But Polyakov is outraged that a British firm should leave him and his crew this way: "I am absolutely sure: if I leave, I will never get my wages. And my crewmen ashore will not."

John Green, development director of Apostleship of the Seas, says: "We come across a lot of abandoned crews, but this is exceptional in the duration. When a firm is in trouble, the crew's wages are pretty much the first things to go."

Legal responsibility can be difficult to pin down and disputes hard to settle in the complex waters of international shipping. The International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) says cases of stranded sailors are common worldwide, but rare in the UK. For now, according to Katie Higginbottom of the ITF, the responsibility to protect crew should fall on the flag state: "In theory this is now up to the Comoros islands. But in practice that will never happen."

Some extra protection for the crew should be afforded by the Maritime Labour Convention, which came into force on 20 August, seven years after it was first ratified by 30 nations. The UK belatedly signed up on 7 August this year, which means its duties as a port state will come into effect in a year's time, potentially obliging the government to intervene to protect stranded sailors on arrested ships.

"It's often difficult to put your finger on where the whole thing lies," says Green. "But this affair just shows that the welfare of seafarers is precarious. Who's there for them?"