Unpaid Captains Threaten to Sink Ships

Fed up after waiting for more than a year to get paid, six ship captains have found a new way to protest their plight. They are threatening to sink their St. Petersburg-docked ships.

Anton Gurin, captain of the Nikolai Zhuravlyov, started to pump water into his ship Thursday, and the other captains said they would follow suit if the city of St. Petersburg doesn’t help them and their 120 crew members claim to $1.5 million in back wages.

The six ships were once part of the 38-vessel fleet of Far East shipping giant Vostoktransflot. The shipper went bankrupt last year amid a control dispute between shareholders and Primorye region Governor Yevgeny Nazdratenko.

Eleven ships wound up in St. Petersburg after the bankruptcy. All of them were sold to various companies, but only five have left port.

After 17 months in limbo, the captains of the remaining six ships are furious.

"Hell has broken loose with what’s happening here," said Ivan Okhtinsky, first deputy captain of the St. Petersburg Port Authority. "As a human being I can understand their situation. But they can’t just sink ships in the middle of a port, and we will not let them."

Port Authority spokesman Andrei Markelov said the authorities would watch the ships "day and night" and arrest any captain who looked like he might actually sink a ship.

Tufton Oceanic Ltd., a shipping finance and investment company, was arranging funding for the stranded crews on behalf of six Cypriot companies until January. Those companies ran into financial difficulties when their other ships failed to bring in sufficient revenues, said Alan McCarthy, senior vice president of Tufton Oceanic.

The sailors took matters into their own hands earlier this year and sued. A St. Petersburg court decided that the vessels would be auctioned off in August for at least $800,000 each and the proceeds would be used to pay off the sailors.

Despite the ruling, court bailiffs have not taken any steps to prepare the ships for auction.

Markelov blamed the delay on speculators who want to snap up the vessels on the cheap. The moored vessels are fast depreciating and soon could be sold only as scrap, he said.

"There are two very good ships among the six, and prices on them are already half of what they cost," he said. "I think court bailiffs are being pressured by those who want to buy the ships cheaply."

St. Petersburg City Hall declined to comment Friday on the ship dispute.

Some St. Petersburg shippers, though, expressed concern that the captains would sink their ships and potentially spark an environmental nightmare in the harbor.

"Oil and fuel from the ships’ tanks would grease the port’s waters," said an official at Petrolesport, a privately owned exporter that operates at the port.