A Long Way Home for Ukrainian Sailors

The Ukrainian crew was celebrating with cheesesteak sandwiches on board the cargo ship Ocean Power in late February. After greater than a 12 months on anchor in Delaware Bay and dockside in Philadelphia, repairs had been made, and the seven remaining crew members—the minimal required to keep up the cargo vessel whereas in port—had obtained long-overdue again pay. A brand new proprietor had taken over. They had been going dwelling.

After which Russian bombs started falling on their homeland and  Russian infantry poured throughout the border. It was Wednesday night, February 23, in Philadelphia, already Thursday in Ukraine.

“I was on my way home from the ship about one o’clock in the morning when I got a call from a sailor’s wife back in Ukraine. I couldn’t understand what she was saying, but she was very upset,” says Barbara Ship-ley in a telephone interview with the Voice. Ship-ley is an inspector with the Worldwide Transport Employees’ Federation (ITF), a world commerce union that has been aiding the crew for months. “The war had started. They weren’t going anywhere.”    

Nowhere is precisely the place the Ocean Power and its cargo of used vehicles—initially meant for Haiti, the place the cargo bumped into authorized issues—has gone since docking greater than 14 months in the past.

Long earlier than Russian president Vladimir Putin got down to conquer Ukraine—a marketing campaign that President Biden has mentioned consists of genocide—the 39-year-old ship was beset by troubles. The issues have included a damaged boiler, rendering the ship with out warmth; a backed-up sewage tank; a busted stern ramp, which is used to unload automobiles in transport; and a rupture within the hull, which, although modest and patched, was not repaired nicely sufficient to fulfill inspectors. “Big ship, big headache,” says Alexander Saleh, 67, the vessel’s new proprietor, interviewed on the ship’s bridge in early April.

Not like the crew, Saleh, a Turkish-born Greek residing in Cardiff who lived in Britain for a while, speaks English very nicely. The sailors, although Ukrainian, converse to one another in Russian.  (Help from these with higher English offered the translations.) “In school I learned Ukrainian and Russian,” says first officer Viktor Kushmila, whose house is in Vinnytsia, a metropolis of roughly 370,000 about 280 miles south of Kyiv. “Most Ukrainians in Odesa speak Russian. It’s our history.” Kushmila, 56, is the daddy of a seaman. “He’s on a ship somewhere,” he says, between making rounds on deck.

The problem that first introduced the Ocean Power to the eye of authorities was a number of months of again wages owed the crew by the earlier proprietor, Primeshipping, which has places of work in Odesa. Primeshipping had informed the Ocean Power’s captain, Gennadiy Shevchenko, that the shortage of warmth wasn’t a giant deal, that it was chilly in Ukraine too. “They said we could survive as well as the previous crew,” remembers Shevchenko.

By the point a blizzard hit the East Coast, this previous January, “They were sitting on a freezing ship, unpaid,” J. Stephen Simms tells the Voice. Simms, a Baltimore-based maritime lawyer, has performed two roles within the saga. At first, he represented CAC, the chartering firm that engaged Primeshipping for the ill-fated Haiti journey. When Primeshipping breached that contract, Simms says, CAC declared chapter. After the snowstorm, Simms was retained by the sailors, and in gentle of their circumstances, he offered his companies professional bono.

Shipley, of the ITF, drove to Philly from her dwelling in Norfolk, Virginia, on January 29 and purchased seven queen-size comforters at Ross Costume for Much less, a bunch of hand heaters, after which picked up three giant pizzas (one among them with anchovies, on the request of Captain Shevchenko). It was 21 levels on deck and snowing exhausting. Within the crew’s cabins, the temperature was 32. The next day, Helene Pierson, govt director of the Seamen’s Church Institute of Philadelphia and South Jersey, purchased a buying cart’s value of house heaters for the cabins, mess corridor, and galley. Pierson then spent three days scouring town for the right voltage converters, so the warmers might be plugged into the ship’s grid. “It was a complicated situation that became more and more complicated [as war loomed],” says Simms.

As soon as the Russian invasion started, the remaining crew members on the 348-foot roll-on/roll-off off vessel (designed to hold wheeled cargo) had been caught. And so they couldn’t go away the ship in Philadelphia till pink tape concerning a spread of immigration points was resolved. Technically, the lads usually are not refugees, thus President Biden’s latest govt order to let into the U.S. 100,000 Ukrainians displaced by warfare doesn’t cowl them. However by means of the work of Shipley; Iryna Mazur, honorary consul of Ukraine in Philadelphia; the Coast Guard, the Customs Border Patrol, and the places of work of Pennsylvania senator Bob Casey Jr. and Virginia senator Mark Warner, the crew’s state of affairs has been ameliorated. Now given “temporary protective status,” the lads is not going to have to attend in a detention middle to be processed, as these searching for asylum in different conditions should do. As a substitute, if all goes as deliberate, by late April they are going to be launched to the Ukrainian neighborhood of Philadelphia, the place, Pierson says, Ukrainian Jap Orthodox and Ukrainian Catholic parishes are desirous to welcome them.

Some, like Captain Shevchenko, a 60-year-old third-generation sailor, wish to keep in america. “I can do whatever I like. I’m divorced and my daughter is grown,” says Shevchenko of his 38-year-old daughter, Valeria, a normal surgeon in Odesa who, he explains with out stepping into specifics, helps the Ukrainian warfare effort. Others could select to go dwelling.

On April 11, Shipley obtained a textual content from a younger mariner who labored within the Ocean Power engine room below the earlier proprietor. “I changed careers and joined the Army,” he wrote, including that Ukrainian forces are in want of fundamentals comparable to bulletproof vests, helmets, and ammunition. “I’m now defending my country in Eastern Ukraine.” In the interim, he reported, his household was secure.


You will not be enthusiastic about warfare, however warfare is enthusiastic about you
—Attributed to Leon Trotsky


As of the Voice’s print deadline, the ship remained dockside at Pier No. 88, awaiting permission to be towed to the Bahamas for additional repairs, foremost amongst them the patched gap within the hull. Onboard with Shevchenko and Kushmila had been third officer Vitaliy Boyko, bosun Sergiy Kuzhbarenko, chief engineer Volodymyr Shykhov, second engineer, Vadym Koval, and a 19-year-old maritime cadet turned reluctant cook dinner named Andrii Tiupa, who was thrust into the job when the final cook dinner signed off final fall.

Ocean Power proprietor Saleh has been with the crew for the reason that warfare began. Buying and selling as Alexander Navigation, Saleh says he purchased the German-built vessel from Primeshipping for $500,000 at a digital public sale simply hours earlier than the warfare started, reflagging the ship from registration in Belize to the Marshall Islands. He estimates that it’s going to take one other $250,000 of repairs within the Bahamas to make it seaworthy. Along with his British passport, Saleh has been in a position to enter Philadelphia for a haircut and some pints of a favourite beverage, Guinness Stout, and, with Pierson driving, make meals runs to maintain the ship’s larder stocked.

A lot of the crew members are from the 18th-century port of Odesa—the “Pearl of the Black Sea”—or close by villages. Bosun Kuzhbarenko, 53, is from Mariupol, a port metropolis demolished by the Russians the place, based on President Zelenskyy, “tens of thousands are dead.” After Russia did not seize the capital metropolis, Kyiv, it turned its forces upon the jap shoreline. At press time, Russia was demanding Mariupol’s give up, with each troopers and civilians below brutal assault.

Kuzhbarenko, a blond, bearded man with a ponytail, hadn’t heard from his household for weeks. Cell communication was down, the Pink Cross had termed the state of affairs there “apocalyptic,” and he’d obtained no e mail or some other communications. Whereas talking with me, Kuzhbarenko’s eyes crammed with tears and he turned away, shaking his head “No” when requested to speak in regards to the state of affairs.  (Afterward, Kuzhbarenko  heard from his sister and discovered that she and his spouse had been evacuated from Mariupol.)

And so the lads work—their confinement “both comforting but excruciating,” says lawyer Simms—their labors an opportunity, maybe, to consider one thing moreover the horror of their homeland. The engineers make rounds and the mates do the identical on deck, in view of a once-grand and long-moored and rusting ocean liner, the S.S. United States, whose maiden voyage was in 1952, when Soviet Ukraine was referred to as the breadbasket of Europe. Captain Shevchenko retains the crew unfastened with humor and goodwill; he and engineer Shykhov are shut mates, having sailed collectively for many years. As leaders of the ship, they’ve earned excessive marks for sustaining morale through the months of no pay and insufficient quantities of water and provisions on a damaged, unheated vessel.

Within the galley, younger Andrii calls his mom—a postal employee named Natalia—again within the Odesa suburb of Kuchurgan, on the border of Moldova, for recipes. His father is a truck driver, and on the time we converse, in a roundabout way concerned with the army. “I don’t like cooking, I’m a sailor,” Andrii says, chopping carrots and potatoes for stew, the stays of breakfast (a couple of chilly eggs, a sliver of ham) in a skillet on the range. Confined to the ship since final September— “No shore pass,” he says, “just this ship”—Andrii was scheduled to take a seat for his Ukrainian deck officer’s examination across the time the warfare began, as a substitute buying and selling his marlinspike for a spatula. Now—no awarding of a third-mate’s license; no soccer (he’d wished to see a Philadelphia Union skilled sport); no fishing, for which he introduced his rod from dwelling, although he does fry store-bought mackerel because the ship’s one-man steward division. And most tortuous of all, no girlfriend at his aspect. Again dwelling, 16-year-old Karina trades calls and texts with Andrii. He plans to marry her when she turns 18, after which, dream of desires, begin a household in America.

We talk with hand gestures, Andrii’s bare-bones English, and Google Translate, passing his smartphone forwards and backwards as he cues up English to Russian and vice versa. Throughout one among our exchanges—in regards to the Russian phrase for “mailman,” —I joke about whether or not his girlfriend ever scrolls by means of his telephone. “She knows my password,” he says, lifeless critical. “I have no secrets.”

I used to be a teenage sailor as soon as upon a time, when Gerald Ford was president, again when speaking with mates and lovers (and Mother) again dwelling was achieved by handwritten letter and pay telephones on the docks. I signed on to the fabled Puerto Rican container ship Mayaguez as an peculiar seaman in June 1976, only a week out of highschool. The 12 months earlier than, quickly after the autumn of Saigon, the ship had been seized by the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia. U.S. Marines recaptured the ship a couple of days later in a four-day battle—thought of the final of the Vietnam Struggle—the place not less than 17 U.S. servicemen perished. I knew none of this after I climbed the gangway at Dundalk Marine Terminal, in Baltimore, with a duffel bag full of books, a cassette participant, and tapes of Roxy Music, Frank Zappa, and The Who (Quadrophenia). Not like younger Andrii, I had loads of secrets and techniques, and I saved them within the pages of a thick journal I made out of photocopied photos—Robin Tower, Johnny Winter, Ziggy Stardust—from Creem journal.

Years later, ashamed of issues that when excited me, I dumped my Summer season of ’76 journal, my ideas and desires scribbled on the backs of these xeroxed photographs, within the trash and watched a rubbish truck haul it down the alley. All these years later, these secrets and techniques don’t imply a lot, however I certain want I had all the forgotten notes taken whereas crusing between Baltimore, Puerto Rico, New Orleans, and again once more—like saying goodbye to my Italian grandmother on her deathbed, and the primary time I noticed the stone partitions of Castillo San Felipe del Morro whereas pulling into San Juan harbor.

Although my father was a lifetime chief engineer, each on deep-sea vessels and tugboats, I knew as a lot about seafaring as Andrii is aware of about cooking. The Greek officers referred to as me “Junior,” as Ocean Power chief engineer Shykhov refers to Andrii because the ship’s “son.” (Solely, the Ukrainians say it with affection.) I went for journey—what children who wished to be writers did earlier than the arrival of the MFA business—and to generate income for faculty. Similar ship the following summer season, although this time I sailed as a wiper within the engine room, like my Pop did in 1951, when he started his profession on a Bethlehem Metal ore run from Baltimore to Chile and again. There’s nothing fairly just like the scent of a diesel-perfumed engine room on a ship, a potent cocktail of chilly metal, grease, petroleum merchandise, and seawater. And nothing, science has proven, spurs reminiscence as vividly as scent. Due to the well-known madeleine scene within the novel In Search of Misplaced Time, the second during which the cookie is dipped into scorching tea and floods the narrator with emotion, the connection between scent and reminiscence is named “the Proust effect,” in honor of the writer. So when Chief Shykhov walked me by means of the engine room of the Ocean Power, I used to be moved when that blend of smells hit me. And transported—at first taken again to the summer season of studying Dickens on the Mayaguez stern after which, extra powerfully, again to childhood, after I rode tugboats with my father, who spent most of his profession retaining the Baltimore tug America in working order.

My father handed away final August, at 87, and—sensible sufficient to know that his first-born barely knew a wrench from a screwdriver—by no means wished me to comply with him right down to the piers. However he was greater than beneficiant with a sea story, and I’ve been writing them down since my first byline a few Baltimore longshoremen’s strike in 1977, the 12 months I give up seafaring to work on the Baltimore Solar.

Shykhov, 60, is a big, bald-headed man given to prepared smiles and jokes, a big-hearted fellow who, in one other life, may need had a slapstick profession in vaudeville. As we squeeze by means of a passageway, I discover he’s sporting bed room slippers along with his overalls. It wasn’t his shift, however he was keen to assist me inform the crew’s story. “We’re always on board, never leave—you go a little crazy,” he tells me. “The captain is optimistic, and that helps.”

Saleh has signed a contract with Dann Ocean Towing, out of Florida, for the companies of the 4,600-horsepower tugboat Comet, an American-flagged vessel docked in Pink Hook, Brooklyn. As soon as the Ocean Power is made quick to the tug for a “dead tow” to the Bahamas, the crew will come ashore, move by means of the safety gate, and return to society. If all goes based on schedule, they may quickly spend time—if not with their very own households again in Ukraine—with households in Philly with ties to their homeland.

Saleh plans to rent a crew within the Bahamas to take the vessel to a shipyard in Turkey, or maybe Lebanon. As soon as there, the vehicles onboard might be unloaded on the market. Like all the pieces else within the transport enterprise, significantly because it considerations the Ocean Power, there’s an excellent probability that nothing will go as deliberate.  ❖

A former employees author for the HBO drama The Wire, Alvarez is the writer of a dozen books, each fiction and nonfiction, about Baltimore. Don’t Depend Me Out, his guide in regards to the unlikely redemption of a violent Baltimore junkie, might be launched in September by Cornell College Press.

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