Workers stranded on ship at sea for months

Workers stranded on ship at sea for months

TYBEE ISLAND, GA (WTOC) - Just six miles off the coast of Tybee Island is an abandoned ship with its crew still on board.

The boat has been anchored at sea for months after the company that owned the vessel defaulted on the loan.

The Newlead Castellano was arrested by U.S. Marshals when it was making a sugar delivery at Imperial Sugar on April 19. Similar to what happens when a bank forecloses on a home if a company doesn't make payments on their vessel, the creditor then repossesses the ship.

According to an attorney on this case, the company in default is Newlead, a Greek company that deals with dry bulk commodities. Officials said Newlead had not only stopped making payments on the ship, but they also stopped paying its crew.

This multimillion-dollar vessel will soon be sold on the steps of the federal courthouse, but until then this Filipino crew is not allowed to come to the mainland because they don't have the legal documentation, and this vessel must remain anchored in the channel.

"You know, in my 16-year career practicing maritime law here in Savannah, I've only had this on one other occasion where the vessel owner has essentially abandoned the ship and we've had to actually sell the vessel at auction," said attorney Todd Baiad. "This is not a typical situation that you would see."

"We could not avoid these things that happen," said Captain Reynaldo Alcuizar.

"Everybody thinks that a sailor's life is great," said Gerard LoPreiato of the National Maritime Service. "It is when things run right."

The ship was arrested in April after a Greek company defaulted on its loan. Similar to a home foreclosure, this vessel will be sold at auction. The only difference is, this ship comes with a crew of 15 Filipino sailors, and they are just as anchored as this ship is until there is a new owner.

Making more waves than this vessel has in months, the people at Hogan's Marina took WTOC out to the crew, where we climbed aboard this vessel where life seems to be in limbo.

"Nobody can leave off of this ship, not even myself," said LoPreiato.

LoPreiato works for the National Maritime Service, a firm that polices claims and enforces arrests like this. He was required to move in when the ship was arrested and will remain on board until the ship is sold.

He said the crew is actually in better hands now because not only had the owner of the company defaulted on their loan, this crew was also not getting paid.

"The crew is doing so much better since they got paid and were able to send money home," LoPreiato said.  

He says the creditor is not only making sure the crew members are getting paid, but also making sure they have enough food, water and fuel on the ship.

"In the first place we were sad, but here in America we are happy," said Alcuizar.

Even though technically none of the crew have proper documents to come ashore, the captain said they are appreciative of just being this close. While we were there, it was evident that being onboard an abandoned ship was all relative.

"The wages are so low in their country, but when they work on a ship, what they make in one month, they would make in about four or five months there," LoPreiato said.

Since the crew is abandoned here at sea, they can't go to church. So the church came to them.

Father Brett Brannen of Blessed Sacrament has now made three trips to the vessel with the help of Hogan's Marina.

"We need to give them that hope that this is going to pass, and it's a difficult experience for them but it will be a great learning experience for them as well," Father Brannen said. "The crew is very welcoming of me and I hope it makes them feel the love of the church and reminds them of their own families and their own pastors back in the Philippines. The Catholic Church is everywhere in the world and our job is to take care of God's children."

"It helps, you know because it gives us the courage to stay and not to worry about all of the things, you know," said Alcuizar.

Most of the crew on board haven't been home or seen their families in almost a year. Many of them sign contracts with companies and know exactly how long they will be away from home, but the contracts that this crew signed are now null and void until this vessel has a new owner.

"This is a sailor's life," Alcuizar said. "If you sign a contract, then you have to wait to finish these things."

The vessel is expected to be auctioned off on Aug. 8.

NewLead offered the following statement:

As regards the possibility of a sale, there is still a lot of ground to be covered until we reach there, if ever. Vessel's owners- NewLead - have confirmed their intention to keep the vessel and are thus working towards finding an amicable solution with Plaintiff whilst at the same time preparing to challenge the sale if need be. 

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