American vessel not safe enough to leave, Coast Guard says

ROTTING FREIGHTER GROUNDED S.

June 02, 1993|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,Staff Writer

The rusty freighter, home to 18 seamen, one stowaway and hundreds of rats, sits at Canton Marine Terminal.

Known as the Advance, the 452-foot South American vessel sailed into Baltimore's Inner Harbor nearly a month ago to unload 11,000 tons of unrefined sugar at the Domino refinery. Then the Coast Guard ordered it to dock, saying it wasn't safe enough to sail.

Its massive hull is peppered with holes; its water tanks are contaminated by sewage and fuel oil. Stairs are rusted through, and its hatches are so corroded that sea water destroyed tons of cocoa beans earlier this year. And living quarters remain infested with rats.

"It is substandard even for a Third-World-country ship," said Lt. Mark Williams, safety officer for the Coast Guard, which intervened by invoking the rarely used international law called SOLAS -- Safety of Life at Sea.

Until costly repairs are made, the Coast Guard won't let the Advance leave Baltimore. So far, the ship's financially strapped owner in Cali, Colombia -- reachable primarily by fax -- hasn't come through with money for repairs.

On board are 18 Ecuadoran crew members and one stowaway -- a Tanzanian who wanted to become a seaman and send money home to his mother. Crew members leave the ship occasionally to attend church or call their families on a phone at Holy Evangelist Church in Canton.

But the crew members haven't been paid for weeks. Two days ago, they ran out of fuel for generators that provide lights, refrigeration and hot water. Their food supply is dwindling. Besides, the cook won't cook until he's paid.

"We have food, but not enough," said one crew member, who, like others, refused to give his name for fear of reprisal by the ship's owner. "We want to go home to our families."

In the complicated world of international shipping, vessels often are owned by a person or company in a developed country but are registered in a Third World nation to avoid taxes, fees and regulations.

"If this were a national flagged ship, it couldn't happen," said Edd Morris, an inspector with the International Transport Workers Federation, a trade union that has been trying to arrange help for the crew members.

Not only has the Advance's owner been unresponsive, but Malta, where the ship is flagged, has withdrawn its registration. The flag nation is typically responsible for ensuring that the ship meets International Maritime Organization standards.

In addition, Lloyd's, the shipping classification agency in London, which was hired by the owner to make sure that the ship was seaworthy, has refused to inspect the vessel because it has not been paid.

Still, hard as it is to believe, things have improved on the ship.

Before sailing to Baltimore, the Advance was held in Norfolk, Va., for more than three months. It had sailed there from Brazil but was ordered docked by the Coast Guard. Sewage had been pumped into the engine room. Crew members suffered from intestinal diseases and rashes. The ship's drinking water was black. The firefighting system didn't work, and lifeboats didn't release properly.

After some repairs were made, the Coast Guard allowed it to sail up the Chesapeake Bay to deliver several million dollars' worth of sugar toDomino. The company said the unrefined sugar was not damaged.

Coast Guard officials say they are uncertain when the ship can leave Baltimore.

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