Even when off duty and onshore, you will find Captain Volodymyr Yeroshkin not far from the sea. These days he reclines off the coast of Costa Blanca in Alicante, soaking in the sun and treasured family time.
Not long ago he was on the other side of the Mediterranean, at the forefront of what has been dubbed one of the longest maritime standoffs in European history. In early August the tanker vessel he was captaining, Maersk Etienne, became embroiled in a political stalemate that left the ship stranded at sea for close to six weeks.
The 37,000dwt Danish-flagged Maersk Etienne was on route to La Skhira, Tunisia when the call came from the Maltese Rescue Coordination Centre, alerting them to a small boat carrying 27 persons. The Etienne immediately changed its course to watch over the distressed boat, anchoring at 16 nautical miles southeast off Malta.
“The moment of embarkation was perilous,” says Volodymyr Yeroshkin. “As we lowered the rope ladder, we knew there were risks of scuffles, falls, injuries and even fatalities. Factoring the high freeboard and dire weather conditions, I saw that our chances of successful embarkation were slim.”
The timing could not have proved more critical for a short while later, everyone watched in horror as the strong winds and rolling seas capsized the boat below. The 27 persons had been saved just in time.
It wasn’t the impulse to rescue the distressed alone that raced through the captain’s mind; there was also trepidation around what his crew may encounter, including exposure to coronavirus. Stretching the vessel’s 24-member capacity with an additional 27 passengers was another strain on supplies and infrastructure.
“But,” emphasizes the captain, “on a ship, you do not turn your back. Even if you have doubts or are afraid, you carry out your duties.”
As the rescuees stepped on board, it was difficult for the captain and crew not to feel sympathy for their new guests. “My heart went out to them,” says Volodymyr, “you could see their crippling exhaustion and dehydration, and the extreme levels of poverty they were coming from – the skin on their bodies was all the property they owned.”
Vladimir Markovic was the Chief Officer onboard Maersk Etienne during that fateful voyage and in charge of medical care: “It was challenging to set up a makeshift quarantine and minimize contact and risk during the first two weeks. The survivors had gone days without food and water, so we assigned several crew members to help restore their health. At the same time, our crewmen had to do their respective daily duties looking after the vessel.”
Overtime a bonhomie developed between the crewmen and the rescuees, the latter thanking the crew for their care and kindness. Notes of gratitude scribbled on the back of disposable plates were also passed on to the master.
But as the weeks passed by and no government stepped up to fulfil its duty, fatigue and frustration started to set in on the standstill vessel. A tipping point came when three of the new passengers jumped overboard.
Chief Officer Markovic was on the bridge when the jump happened. “I raised the alarm and a rescue boat was launched immediately. Once we had successfully recovered them from the sea, we realized just how desperate we were for outside help.”
No help came.
Despite a growing humanitarian crisis on board and urgent calls for political action, relevant authorities remained deafeningly quiet. “It was a very unpleasant surprise to see that while we were doing everything to help the 27 persons in distress, responsible countries were shirking from their job. We felt trapped,” says Captain Yeroshkin.
Ultimately it was due to Maersk Tankers own efforts that a charity ship belonging to the Italian non-governmental organization Mediterranea came to support. Following a health assessment from the medical team onboard Mare Junio the survivors were transferred to the NGO ship to ensure much-needed psychological and physical care.
Persons rescued by the Maersk Etienne in early August were finally allowed to step on land in Pozzallo, Sicily in mid-September. “But this cannot be a burden for shipowners and NGOs to shoulder,” the captain reminds.
The crew, who already faced the prospect of uncertain rotations due to the ongoing pandemic, also ended up suffering an even longer time at sea and away from their loved ones. Chief Officer Markovic hopes that such situations “will be resolved far quicker in the future with far less stress for survivors and crew.”
Responding to people in distress in the open ocean is a mariner’s highest calling and a bond shared by all seafarers; Volodymyr Yeroshkin fills with pride at how his crewmen did their duty, despite the physical and emotional toll it was taking on them:
“Critical situations push us to extreme performance, and in this case, the crew went above and beyond – knowing they were the only chance for this vulnerable group of people to survive. I enjoyed being the commander of such a heroic crew during the rescue operation.”
The first time Volodymyr Yeroshkin stepped aboard a ship was two decades ago: “What would excite me most was manoeuvring a vessel in the harbour. Even today, it gives me that same pleasure it did 20 years ago.”
While he looks forward to returning to that pleasure, Volodymyr is happy to be with his family in Alicante – where, for the first time in three years, he will get to spend Christmas and New Year holidays with them.