Ship and Indian crew abandoned for over a year at Walvis Bay

The abandoned diving support ship Halani-1, which is anchored with three other vessels offshore Walvis Bay, with eight Indian crew members on board.

Captain Amarjit Singh Bajwa and seven other Indian crewmen remain stranded aboard the Halani-1 anchored in the waters off Walvis Bay after the ship was arrested to be auctioned, following a High Court order in October last year.

Like throwing a bottle with a message into the ocean, on January 1 Capt. Bajwa posted a tweet calling for help. “We are 8 crew on board Halani 1 which is at Walvis Bay, Namibia, stranded here as owner Mr Ashok Bhambhani is not providing relief… We need your help urgently to go home.”

Halani-1 is a dynamic positioning (DP3) diving support vessel (90-metres in length) and is valued at over US$15 million. With a heli-deck and 100 metric ton crane, it is typically used in oil exploration.

The owners and crew are Indian nationals, but the ship is registered in Kingstown and sails under the flag of St. Vincent and Grenadines (SVG).

I contacted Capt Bajwa on Monday to ask about the condition of the crew. The captain said he was worried about the health of the sailors. “We have been on board too long. The morale of the crew has been running low and the mental health is not good. Frequent arguments on issues, loss of temper at even the slightest excuse and general indifferent attitude is setting in.”

Mission to Seafarers staff (with yellow) on board Halani-1 with the crew at Walvis Bay on 17 May 2018. Photo: MTS

Bajwa explained: “We are eight crew on board the vessel, all Indians. We are four ships moored together, all belonging to the same company… We have been abandoned by vessel owner, Mr. Ashok Bhambhani, also an Indian. I have one crew member who has been on board for almost 24 months. All the other crew have been on board for over 13 months. The ratings contract is for six months, while the officers’ contract is for 2–3 months. So, all of us have completed our contracts many times over.”

They approached the High Court last year to get their unpaid salaries and to be repatriated. The court ordered that the abandoned ship be arrested and auctioned, but the owner intervened at the last minute before the auction on 10 October 2018 and offered to pay the crew their salaries for the year up to September, and to repatriate them to India.

Halani-1 is a DP3 diving support vessel valued at over US$15 million.

VESSEL ABANDONED

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) reported in April 2018 that the vessel, along with a tug and two accommodation barges owned by Halani had been abandoned at Walvis Bay and that the “owner is having financial problems as they can’t come up with payments to seafarers on-board.”

The SVG Flag State Inspector in June last year confirmed that the company did not pay its seafarers for several months and that they were running short on food supplies.

On 12 June, a company representative Kamal Aggarwal told the ILO: “We are making arrangements to pay the salaries for the Halani-1 crew and repatriate them back home… We are also in the meantime making efforts to sell Halani-5 and pay the crew as well as repatriate them back to their home town… provisions have been ordered and shall be supplied by Monday.”

But to date the crew remains stranded.

SHIP ARRESTED

“I joined the vessel on 18 March [2018]. The crew had not been paid wages since November 2017. Subsequently the food on board also became a problem as the owner was not supplying sufficient food and I spent money from my own pocket to get some basic food requirements,” Capt. Bajwa said.

Halani-1 is currently moored alongside three vessels belonging to the same firm.

“We, the crew, got the vessel arrested through the Namibian High Court on 18 May 2018 for non-payment of our wages and not repatriating us to India. Seafarers Mission Walvis Bay helped us a lot in this. Although most the crew got their wages till 30 September 2018, the owner is refusing to repatriate us and again the wages have become due for over three months.

“The Namibian High Court has since the arrest of the vessel been providing us with sufficient food and other facilities to make life bearable on board for us.” They felt “indebted” to the court and Mission to Seafarers for the help, he added.

They still had sufficient rations, the captain said, but all indications were that the patience of the men was wearing thin. The vessel was again arrested in December by ex-Halani 1 crew, who had signed off earlier without receiving their wages, and it may come up for auction again in 3–4 months.

WE JUST WANT TO GO HOME

We cannot wait till then to go home. We on board seek your help for us to get back to India. The Port authorities are not allowing us to abandon the vessel and go home because of safety issues. The only other alternative is that local crew can be put on board, so that we can all go home soon.

“Since the vessel is still under arrest, the wages of the local crew can be recovered from the owner easily, Bajwa suggested. “Holding us here against our wishes after we have completed the contracts is a direct infringement of our human rights. We seek help so that we can all be sent home A.S.A.P.”

It is understood that Indian High Commissioner Prashant Agrawal is aware of the crew’s fraught situation. The captain of Halani-1 said they had received assurances from their High Commission in Windhoek that the sailors’ concerns would be attended to. “We just want to go home,” he said.

* First published in The Confidente on 10 January 2019.