By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
Maurice Denis wore a look of profound irritation as he stood on a Port Everglades pier September 24. Portly and balding but dapper in a beige suit, the 60-year-old Haitian-American looked out of place among the shipping containers.
Two gun-toting U.S. marshals stood before him, blocking the way to the 296-foot tanker Atlantica, and despite Denis' entreaties, they would not let him pass. Leaning against the railing onboard, several of the Atlantica's Ukrainian crew members stared impassively at Denis, the ship's owner, as they smoked. They say he hasn't paid them in months, hasn't provided adequate rations, and hasn't spent enough to make the ship safe. Last month, the 13-member, sea-weary crew risked their careers by calling an American lawyer, who persuaded a federal court to confiscate the ship. Now, for the time being, it belongs to the crew.
If Denis doesn't come up with the five months or more in back wages he owes the crew, some of whom earned only $26 a day, the Atlantica can be auctioned to satisfy their claim. The day before the seizure, Denis offered a partial payment, but after months of empty promises, his words rang hollow to men with families to feed back home.
"I have never seen anything like this, even in Soviet days," says Chief Engineer Oleg Asaulenko, speaking from onboard over a cell phone while the Atlantica was moored a mile off shore. Asaulenko has plied the world's oceans for 33 of his 55 years and supports a wife and two children in the Ukraine. He sailed for Denis for a year without pay and then, like many of the crew, signed on for another voyage in May, hoping that his loyalty would impress the owner enough to pay up. It didn't.
"I have a 22-year-old son, Vyacheslav, who is finishing university in February, and I have to pay tuition," Asaulenko says. "He is studying to be a mechanic. I needed the money. I hadn't been paid the whole time."
Asaulenko, friendly and talkative, was promised $2,500 per month. He is owed the most, $19,761. Capt. Gennady Gorbanyov is the highest-ranking officer and would normally be the owner's representative onboard, but in a move almost unheard of in maritime circles, he sided with his shipmates, hoping to collect back wages of $11,823. All of the crew members now aboard the ship signed on to the complaint against Denis, right down to the cook, Oleksandr Zablotsky, who says he is owed $6,723.
After declining repeated requests for an interview, Denis made it clear in a phone conversation that he disputes the charges against him but refused to speak on the record.
Scott Brady, the Florida representative of the International Transport Workers' Federation, says he gets about 100 complaints a week from mariners about unpaid wages, bad food, or excessive hours. But when he heard in May about the Atlantica, he knew it was a crisis. "If we were to take even half of their complaints at face value," Brady says, "then things were pretty bad."
Though low by U.S. standards, the salaries paid on merchant ships make the jobs highly prized in many developing countries. In the Ukraine, the average monthly wage is about $120. But theoretical cash is little comfort to men who say they were living on a pittance and, worse, sending nothing home to their families, in some cases for more than a year.
What's more, the ship has had big problems. The Coast Guard has detained it at least six times in the past two years for equipment and safety violations. As a result, authorities have barred at least two ships belonging to Denis -- the Atlantica and the Carl Phillip-- from carrying government cargo and put them on a Coast Guard safety watch list.
When the Atlantica arrived at Port Everglades this past June 10, the Coast Guard denied entry and cited a laundry list of safety and mechanical violations. Fire hoses and pumps needed to be replaced, an engine cooling pipe sported a temporary patch, and cheap, flammable silicon had been used to seal generator gaskets.
That day, three of the crew members, including J. Donskoy, the second engineer, decided they had had enough. Donskoy later told Brady that some of the men had lost 25 to 30 pounds due to the short rations on the sweltering ship.
Perhaps the sight of the luxury condominium towers along Broward's white sand beaches was too great a contrast to the heat, hunger, and poverty onboard. Whatever the reason, with the Atlantica anchored about a mile offshore, Donskoy and two others strapped on life jackets and hurled themselves into the sea. No sooner had they struck out for shore than a Coast Guard vessel gathered them up and returned them to the ship. Undeterred, they jumped again the next day, and this time, the Coast Guard obligingly took them to land -- and turned them over to Immigration. They were quickly deported to the Ukraine, trading any prospect for recovering their back wages for a chance to start over at home.
Since then, Brady says, he has made appointments three times with Denis to discuss conditions onboard. Each time, the meetings were canceled at the last minute. "This guy is a real piece of crap," Brady says. "He's leaving the crew high and dry. The crew comes last to him."