They have run out of food and water, they have no lights, the lavatories are filling up and they have to rely on the goodwill of tug staff to bring them supplies.
This is what life has become for the 18 remaining crew of the cargo ship Panos Earth, which has been anchored in False Bay for seven weeks while engineers try to fix the engines that were damaged after dirty fuel was taken on somewhere in South America.
And the bills are mounting up. Now a whole bunch of creditors are lining up to be paid.
The ship’s insurers, Swedish Club, have offered no overt help and have reserved their position.
The cost of the tug – which has to be on standby near the ship – and its staff is about $30 000 (R235 800) a day.
Now it appears the Chilean shipowner is unable to pay his bills, and creditors have placed several arrests on the vessel. But Dave Colly, regional manager at Samsa, says if the owner can no longer pay the Smit Amandla tug and the salvage company decides to pull out, Samsa will have to tow the Panos Earth out of False Bay where it would be up for grabs by salvors.
“As long as the Smit tug is looking after it, that’s okay, but if Smit says ‘No more’, we’ll have to tow it out to sea,” Colly said.
“Several creditors have put arrests on it, but at some point Samsa may have to go against the sheriff of the court. In choosing between the sheriff and a problem in False Bay, I would rather choose no problem in the bay.
“We don’t want to tackle four million angry Capetonians if things go wrong.
“At the moment there is no direct risk, but the longer it’s there, the greater the risk of something going wrong – fire, pollution.”
The Chilean-owned ship, too big to berth in Cape Town harbour, was given permission by Samsa to anchor in False Bay while she repaired her engines. The Panama-registered ship was making its way from Venezuela to China when it experienced engine failure – because of the dirty fuel – off our coast and had to be towed into the bay.
One of Samsa’s conditions was that a tug be on standby at all times as a precaution while the vessel was in the environmentally sensitive bay.
The ship is lying a few kilometres off the coast and can easily be seen from the shore.
“After this length of time they could have built a rocket, let alone fix a ship,” Colly said.
“All the engineers say it’s eminently fixable. They’ve been pottering. At the moment it is a complete dead ship. Now, at the $30 000 they’re paying for the tug, they could have bought a helluva lot of engineers. Instead they seem to be going one step forward, one step back, and then just stopped.
“They’ve run out of diesel, of food and water. Some of the Chilean crew have been repatriated – they’ve had a gutful. Smit Amandla’s bill must be somewhere around $2m.”
The vessel is carrying 800 tons of fuel, but Colly said this was “not a problem now”.
“But the longer she is exposed in the bay, statistically the chances of a problem increases. The cargo is iron ore. The cargo owners don’t want to commit themselves. And all the lawyers are bickering. Time means nothing to them because they are paid by the hour.”
Colly said the insurers had influenced Samsa to allow the ship into the bay. Legal problems had mounted and the promised insurance cover was “by no means certain”.
The owner in effect remains in possession of the ship.