On 29th February the wife of Indian sailor Afroze Ahmed called the cellphone of electrical engineer Pritam Singh. The phone was answered and immediately went silent. An Indian called Udaynarayan rang his brother Hridaynarayan’s cellphone on the evening of Wednesday 26th February. A voice replied “Hello” then the cellphone went dead. The previous Sunday, the 23rd, an SMS text had been successfully delivered to the cellphone of a ship’s engineer and the cost of the roaming SMS facility been charged to his account.
Not especially remarkable except that Ahmed, Hridaynarayan and the ship’s engineer are three of the 25 Indian crew still missing in the Black Sea, along with their vessel MV Rezzak since 17th February.
Suspicions were enhanced by the fact that Turkish search and rescue efforts produced several items of survival equipment, lifebouys, lifeboats and the like together with an oil slick. The equipment was marked Asean Energy, a name the ship had not carried for around a decade.
That no bodies or personal effect were found is not particularly suspicious. When the British trawler Gaul vanished in a storm the only debris was a single lifejacket found the following year.
When the Bow Mariner exploded and sank off the coast of Virginia (See The Case Of The Unfamiliar Mariner) the majority of bodies were never found even though search and rescue personnel were on site within hours.
It didn’t help allay suspicions, that the ship’s manning agent, Pelican Marine, was also responsible for supplying crew, who came from the same place as those aboard the Rezzak, to the Jupiter 6 which disappeared with all hands in 2005. Then, too, there was an electronic anomaly – 32 days after its disappearance the Jupiter 6’s EPIRB briefly burst into life.
In that case, too, Pelican Marine exhibited a less than enthusiastic interest in helping the families of the vanished crew members.
Like any other piece of equipment, EPIRBS require maintenance that is often not carried out so the lack of an activated EPIRB on the Rezzak may be down to depressingly common lack of attention to life-critical systems aboard ship. Yes, batteries can suddenly, briefly, come back to life for no apparent reason.
No distress call was sent from the Rezzak, but massive structural failure or over overwhelming of the vessel in the bad weather at the time can happen too fast to send a distress call. Even if the failure did not lead to loss of the vessel immediately it may simply be that in the onboard panic the thought of sending such a call fell by the wayside under stress, as it did to the master of the Bow Mariner.
There has been much talk of piracy. Some have dismissed it because there has been no ransom demand, but piracy for ransom is more a feature of the Somalia coast. Most piracy is little more than maritime mugging – grab the cash, valuables and supplies and run – the curse of south easian waters like the Strait of Malacca, in which case there would still be a ship and crew. The third strand of piracy, in which a ship and its cargo is seized and sold, involves international gangs and big business for whom the $3m worth of steel billets and the scrap value of the vessel itself would be small potatoes indeed, although a ready market could be found in China, whose economy is driving much of the current shipping boom and newbuilds. It would be difficult to conduct such an operation under the weather conditions at the time.
Before the Rezzak left the Russian port of Novorossisk she was detained for 37 deficiencies, which included 11 problems related to stability, structure and related equipment, five related to life-saving equipment, and five related to fire safety. There were three deficiencies relted to propulsion and auxiliary equipment., four more related to navigational safety and one related to radio communications.
The ships class society apparently allowed it to sail to Bartin, Turkey, because three deficiencies could not be resolved in Novorossisk.
The Black Sea is a small inland sea. It wouldn’t be particularly easy for a vessel to vanish but still be floating. However, more advanced pirates will weld and cut the ship’s superstructure, paint it, and give it new documentation, typically from an FOC. Nevertheless, piracy, while possible, appears unlikely.
Fraud is a more significant likelihood – scuttling a ship and its cargo and claiming insurance. It is not unknown in the Mediterranean or the Baltic. One would expect the crew to have ‘miraculously’ escaped before the vessel was lost. It is a possibility being explored by the Turkish authorities and the Director General Of Shipping in India has asked the International Maritime Bureau, a private maritime crime organisation attached to the International Chamber of Commerce, for help, and sent an investigator to Turkey on March 6.
One element of the story would appear to make fraud difficult to hide: crew would have had to be involved. There is no history of the entire extermination of a ship’s crew in such cases, which doesn’t mean it can’t happen or hasn’t happened. A very large percentage of the crew, 10 out of 25, came from one tiny dot of an island, part of the Maldives, the only inhabited island in the Maliku Atoll and the most southerly island in the Lakshadweep archipelago, under Indian administration, Minicoy.
Minicoy boasts little more than coconut trees, a lighthouse and a population of a little less than 10,000. The 10 men who have vanished were almost certainly related to just about everyone else in the community. It is hard to believe that the necessary secrecy for fraud could be maintained in that community.
It is difficult to accept that one’s loved ones, relatives, husbands, sons, lovers have vanish so completely, and entirely understandable that there is a reluctance to believe that the Rezzak went to the bottom taking them with it, to cling to the thought that its crew is still alive. But the sea often takes its own in silence.
To put context into the loss, it is as if 300,000 Americans or Europeans suddenly ceased to exist. For Minicoy it is the equivalent of 10 9/11s, or triple the combined losses of Nagasaki and Hiroshima combined in the dropping of the atomic bomb in World War 2.
Its ‘sexy’ to talk about piracy and fraud, and it’s a convenient excuse to with-hold compensation for the seafarer’s families until the insurance companies pay up, but the chances are that the Rezzak went down with all hands in a storm, a great tragedy for that community, a community that, at this moment, is seeing little help or support.
Seafarers are a community bound together by the risk of work and water. The loss of the Rezzak crew is a loss to us all.