May 132009

From UK Correspondent William Redmond

As if sailors lacked enough hazards from a life at sea a new, potentially huge problem looks set to add to their discomforts. It is finding themselves marooned in a foreign port for months without pay following the financial collapse of their ship’s owners.  The latest example is the Russian cargo ship, OMG Kolpino, which has been marooned in Avonmouth (Bristol) docks for the last two months, seized under powers known as the Admiralty Marshall, following the collapse of its St Petersburg-based owner, Oslo Marine Group.

The 51-year old ship’s captain, Andrey Semenov, explained that the crew of 12 had received no wages since December, when they heard that the company was in trouble. Without their wages they cannot fly home to Russia  to see their families whom they have not seen for six months. Currently they have enough money to buy food and they are being looked after by the courts and the Seamen’s Mission at the docks. The crew remain free to come and go as they please but without enough money to fly home they feel that they must remain with their ship.

Originally meant to be on a four-month trip, the OMG Kolpino left its last port of call, Alexandria, with a 6,400-ton cargo of fertilizer, which has since been removed from the ship into the care of the receivers. If the ship’s owner cannot pay its debts then the ship will be sold so the creditors can be paid. The whole process, however, could last several more months, a grim prospect for the crew.

This problem of ships’ arrest is likely to mushroom as it is a direct consequence of the credit crunch. Reportedly, the Oslo Marine Group first hit problems last year when banks in Russia grew nervous about the company’s expansion plans. The company started life in the 1990s as an insurance business but went into shipping last year, arguably at the worst time, which saw shipping rates for Cape-sized bulkers collapse by over 95%. A second vessel belonging to the group, the OMG Gatchina, is being held at La Pallice in France. Other assets reportedly include ports in Vyborg and St Petersburg and extensive interests in the Scandinavian timber trade.

OMG claims that the firm was hit by falling freight rates and reduced cargoes as a result of the global recession. With no prospect of a sharp improvement in cargo rates soon, mariners must expect much worse to come and should, perhaps, have access to enough funds to ensure that they are not mewed up in their vessels for months on end following a ship’s arrest. According to some Far East shipping interests, this year will see the collapse of one third of the world’s cargo shipping lines.

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