Rusting at anchor Durmitor: The stranded ship has become a five-year fixture in the harbor. Crew members say Charm City is a nice place to visit, but they don't want to live here.

March 26, 1997|By William E. Thompson | William E. Thompson,SUN STAFF Sun researchers Paul McCardell and Jean Packard contributed to this report.

From the top deck of the green-and-white hulk known as the Durmitor, the crew can see all of Southeast Baltimore, the downtown skyline glimmering in the distance and the Francis Scott Key Bridge dominating the far horizon.

But what they can't see is when they might be leaving town.

Imprisoned half a mile off Canton by the politics of the Bosnian civil war, the cargo carrier has been as difficult to move as the Montenegrin mountain it's named for. For almost five years, the Durmitor has been subject to the U.S. freeze on Yugoslavian assets.

With some luck, though, it may soon hit the high seas again.

The State Department announced March 11 that the Clinton administration has decided to ease restrictions on some Yugoslavian assets frozen since 1992. The department hopes the Durmitor -- and four other ships similarly detained in other U.S. ports -- can get under way within 90 days.

Before it can go, however, the other remnants of Yugoslavia -- Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia and Slovenia -- and any others with potential legal claims must be notified.

Until then, it sits.

From where sea meets hull to where mast meets gull, the Durmitor is showing the effects of nearly five years of inertia. Under the waves that lap at its dark green belly, barnacles cling for life. Above water, rust spreads across its 518-foot body like a slow-developing cancer.

On the top deck, there is the illusion of freedom. A tattered American flag whips in a brisk, unrelenting wind that causes shivers and musses the hair while filling the nostrils with the smell of the sea. The city appears alluringly close.

But freedom is the most unfamiliar thing to the Durmitor -- or the crew.

The only real way out is to quit the shipping company that owns it. The Maltese-based Milena Shipping Co. assigns the crew, which the company has tried to rotate every seven to nine months during the embargo.

The sailors said they can't choose the boat they're sent to, and added that the Durmitor is not a welcome assignment -- for good reason.

Crewmen rarely leave the ship. Their ride to shore, a flimsy 17-foot dinghy provided by former Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, is at the sea's mercy. If the swells become too big, ferrying the dinghy to shore becomes hazardous.

Basketball and soccer

Instead, the crew does what it can to pass the days. Crew members have fashioned an international-style basketball court, complete with a three-point line, and often play "football" (soccer). They read, play cards and watch television, when it works. Some work at chipping away the ever-present rust.

"We must have something to do. We only sleep. Eat. Drink," said Third Mate Zeljko Bracanovic, 22, while showing off the court.

Yet waiting is mostly what the crew does.

Before it can leave, the Durmitor must be inspected from bow to stern for safety and to make sure there are no environmental threats, such as leaking oil, said Coast Guard spokesman Cmdr. Frank Shelley.

Captain waits

Luka Brguljan, the 50-year-old captain, remains skeptical about leaving soon. Even when he gets Coast Guard approval, he estimates it will take at least another month in a Baltimore shipyard to prepare for steaming across the Atlantic to Spain, where the ship will receive further repairs.

Brguljan is on his second tour with the Durmitor. In command when U.S. officials first halted it, he returned as captain nine months ago.

He said his crew likes Charm City and its people.

"Very nice city. Everything nice. Good people," said Milich Perovich, 31, the Schwarzenegger-sized radio officer. On board, opinions of the city come in a rapid staccato. "Very good." "Nice town." "Friendly people." One large, smiling sailor gives Baltimore an enthusiastic two thumbs up.

Baltimore hospitality

Apparently Baltimore has returned the affection.

Joanne B. Ploskon, who was a liaison for the Durmitor's previous shipping agent, said the Durmitor has been adopted by locals who sympathize with its predicament.

She said she and others -- shipping agents, local businesses, church groups -- have taken food and clothes out to the boat, driven crew members to malls when they came ashore, allowed them to make phone calls home and generally tried to help whenever possible.

"It's been really tough at times," she recalled, especially in December when the Durmitor lost power and went almost a month without electricity or fresh water. "They were taking water from the sea and trying to heat it. One crew member asked to take a shower in my office just because he was tired of being dirty."

Longing to set sail

The desire to leave is professional, not personal, because ports are supposed to be only temporary homes for sailors.

"It is very unusual for seamen. It is very difficult for the crew because they think they are prisoners," Brguljan said.

And it's been that way since George Bush, whose executive order mandated the original asset freeze, was in office.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.