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.
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 ?"