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'Welcome on Board'

They come from the ends of the earth, navigating the world’s oceans according to the dictates of the shipowners. Seafarers. They ensure the smooth operation of the merchant marine, the engine of the global economy, carrying around 90% of the world’s trade. Most of them are exploited, because international shipping is social chaos, its ways made even murkier by the owners’ use of flags of convenience. The cloak they provide allows owners to transport toxic cargoes, paying little attention to health and safety, the crew underpaid, even unpaid, and liable to be abandoned at the slightest problem.

It was 10 yars ago that i first met thesedistressed and abandoned seafarers. I was following Yves Reynaud, an Inspector for the ITF in Marseille, whose remit covers the entire Mediterranean. The ITF (International Transport Workers’ Federation) is a coalition of unions based in London that works for the rights of sailors, fighting the obscure practices that come with flags of convenience. 

The most striking example was the Florenz, a Panamanian freighter abandoned in Sète in January 2001. Wage arrears were so high, the owner preferred to abandon both ship and crew. There were 22 sailors on board, Greek, Croatian, Georgian, Cameroonian, Ghanaian. Caught between anxiety, despair and sheer boredom, going home impossible without money. The ITF had organised their relief through a support committee and, fortunately, the boat still had some value. But the wait would be long: a year and three months until an auction could recover the wage arrears. The ship changed its name, acquired a new Flag of Convenience, Cambodian this time, and set off on the waves, still in a terrible state, but with a new Filipino crew…

My first photographs documenting this situation gave birth to the book “Welcome on Board “, published by Images en Manoeuvres in November 2005. But the story did not stop there. A trip to Dakar brrought me to the Marine One, where an abandoned crew had survived for two years in appalling conditions. As a sailor, your chances depend on where a ship is abandoned. In Dakar, with no support committee, the sailors lived on fish from local fishermen, drank stagnant bilge water and became ill.

January 2010. A commission for Le Monde plunges me back into this story. I leave for Istanbul, where hundreds of ships with uncertain futures line the sides of the Bosphorus. Victims of the financial crisis, some are completely empty, slowly sinking, threatening to capsize or to come crashing against the shore. The slowdown in the global economy has had an immediate impact on trade in the Black Sea and Istanbul is at its entrance.

At the end of the economic chain, you find sailors, exhausted and homeless, abandoned to fate, drifting between boredom and isolation – almost any ship will do. The Nemesis, for example. Flying the flag of Sierra Leone, this 1965 freighter pitches about in the Sea of Marmara, pending some improbable return to service. Its two watchmen haven’t been paid for a year. Its Ukrainian owner, nevertheless arranges the delivery of food and water once a week. Around 500 ships have been abandoned in Istanbul. The Solvita, in the cargo business since 1977, flying the flag of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, stuck for several months with nine Ukrainian sailors. Pending their repatriation, the local branch of the International Transport Workers’ Federation brings supplies to what has become a floating prison.

September 2010, the ITF sends me to Algeciras to photograph the Eastern Planet, a Sierra Leone-flagged freighter. Without news of the owner for several months, the morale of the Ukrainian crew sinks, eaten away by inactivity, trapped by the inactivity of others. Food is provided by humanitarian organizations. Fuel is running out. It’s a typical case for the ITF.

But the subject is infinite. January 2011, I return to Sète, ten years after the first images of the Florenz. The Rio Tagus, built in 1979, also flying the flag of St Vincent and the Grenadines, is held in port, no longer seaworthy. Wages have not been paid for a long time. The ship has no market value, the cost of repair is too high, the owner is in debt. For ITF Inspector Yves Reynaud, repatriating the crew is the only solution, but it is the nightmare of every sailor, having left his family for months, to go home without money. The ship will be just one more on a list of rustbuckets, sinking in different ports.

In ten years the situation hasn’t changed. Sailors exist at the world’s margins. Plato’s thinking still holds true. “A sailor is neither among the living nor the dead; for man, made for the soil, launches himself upon the waters like an amphibian and belongs to the earth and not to the sea and when he sets out upon it, he puts himself at fortune’s mercy.”

© Patrice Terraz

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