Abandoned Crew Heads Home After Chinese Livestock Carrier is Sold
The last 16 members of the crew abandon six months ago aboard a Chinese-owned livestock carrier finally left the ship today heading home after their long ordeal. The Federal Court of Australia had placed a priority on the crewmembers and their welfare along with the assistance of the local office of the Mission to Seafarers and the International Transport Workers' Federation.
The saga of the crew and the vessel began last September when the Yangtze Fortune owned by a Chinese company Soar Harmony Shipping arrived in Portland to load its latest cargo, a shipment of 5,200 head of cattle for transport to China. The 4,800 dwt ship which had been built in 2005 as a containership and later converted to a livestock carrier had a checkered history with at least five names and multiple listed owners and operators. In its current iteration, the ship is registered in Liberia.
An inspection after she arrived in Portland in southern Australia near Melbourne revealed cracks in the hull and other maintenance and safety issues that prevented it from loading the cattle. The owners shortly afterward stopped paying the 36 crewmembers aboard the vessel. The court became involved when Australian Global Exports issued a writ against the ship in Western Australia with claims of damages of US$2.3 million plus A$1 million for breach of a September booking. Dan-Bunkering of Singapore also moved to have the ship arrested for non-payment of bills and subsequently Singapore ship chandlers filed additional claims against the ship. The ITF also lodged an abandonment notice with the International Labour Organisation on behalf of the crew.
The Federal Court agreed with the petitioners in December saying that Soar Harmony had virtually abandoned the ship not replying to court mandates. In January 2023, the court officially ordered the vessel sold at auction. The judge moved to expedite the action recognizing that several of the crewmembers had been aboard the vessel since April of 2022 and were anxious to return home with their pay. According to the ITF, collectively, the stranded seafarers were owed more than a quarter of a million dollars in unpaid wages (US$160,000).
The Admiralty Marshall consulting with the safety regulators determined that 20 of the crewmembers could be repatriated immediately and they left the ship in January to fly home to the Philippines. However, the safety regulators reported that a skeleton crew of 16 was needed to remain aboard the vessel which they determined was rapidly deteriorating and becoming an increasing threat to maritime safety riding anchor in Portland.
Several bids were received and on February 14, 2023, the court directed the Marshal to accept the tender of the highest bidder, which was in the sum of US$8.5 million. The buyer, who was only identified as Chinese, was required to make a 10 percent deposit, but according to the court was unable to remit the deposit due to “investor delay.” The court extended the deadline but later terminated the contract for breach. The Marshal received authorization from the court to proceed to the second-highest bidder, although that bid was reported to be about four percent below the appraised value of the ship. It was however notably higher than the third-highest bid and the average amount of the remaining bids received.
“It is certainly very much in the crew’s interests that the sale is resolved as soon as possible so that they can go home,” said judge J. Stewart in the order. Reports indicated that the Marshall had offered that the master could be among the first group to leave the vessel, but Captain Roger Molinos told the media he was not leaving until all the crew could get paid and leave. The master was listed as the third debtor by the court followed by the other individual crewmembers.
The Portland Mission to Seafarers regularly supported the crew ensuring their welfare. Among the items supplied by the charity were phone cards so the crew could remain in touch with family back in the Philippines during their long ordeal. ITF has been working with the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) and the Admiralty Marshall to support the crew and ensure that they would be paid and receive travel back to the Philippines.
The sale of the Yantzge Fortune was completed last week. The new owner sent a replacement crew to Australia and earlier today the 16 crewmembers and their captain left the Yangtze Fortune traveling to Melbourne and a flight home to the Philippines.
Reports say that the Yangtze Fortune appears also to be headed for a future with the vessel expected to sail for China where it will undergo repairs. Captain Molinos told reporters that he would consider reapplying to the ship once it was made seaworthy.