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."
The money Denis owes his crew should be a laughably small amount to the multi-millionaire Haitian immigrant. He owns three properties in Miami-Dade County that are worth a combined $1.7 million, public records show. In addition, a 2001 statement of assets in his divorce file lists eight cars as well as at least six properties in Haiti, one a house with a listed value of $200,000. He also owns at least three other ships besides the Atlantica, which has been appraised at around $250,000.
But Denis has suffered increasing financial trouble. He has been sued at least 13 times since 1981, with most of the suits coming in recent years. In 2001, a judge threatened Denis with 30 days in jail to get him to give his ex-wife, Carola, $6,775 in legal fees, even after he had paid most of a divorce settlement in excess of $800,000. In 2002, Denis was sued twice by creditors. One of those suits, seeking payment of an unpaid bill of $27,074, was brought by Southeast Coast Supply Inc., a company owned by Denis' cousin, Bertrand Villard.
"That is a lot of money to me," says Villard, who worked for Denis for two decades before opening his own business. And despite their legal clash, Villard defends the ship owner's character. "He's not the type of person who runs out on his bills. When he comes out of his bad times, he will pay his bills," Villard predicted.
Denis' "bad times" seem to be getting worse. In 2003, credit card company MBNA took him to court, and this year, at least four more financial institutions have joined the pack. Last month, Deutsche Bank and Citibank started foreclosure proceedings on two of Denis' properties, one of them a million-dollar home in Pinecrest, a posh enclave south of Miami.
Brady has also placed Denis on the ITWF's blacklist, meaning that union inspectors will go over his ships "with a fine-tooth comb" when they put into any major port anywhere in the world. Brady shows little sympathy for Denis' financial troubles. "I understand it's a dog-eat-dog business," Brady says. "Mr. Denis was given every opportunity to come through, and he never did. He never returned phone calls, he never talked to anybody, and this is what he gets."
After Donskoy and the others abandoned ship, Denis ordered the Atlantica to the Bahamas, where it sat for nearly three months. The crew worked hard on repairs to bring the ship up to U.S. standards, even though they hadn't been paid. The results of their professional pride are evident: The ship is now spotlessly clean, with fresh paint on virtually every surface. They fished over the side for their meals, and though they could go ashore, they had no money to spend, Asaulenko says. When they finally returned to Port Everglades late last month, their patience was exhausted. They brushed aside what they saw as another bogus offer from Denis and made contact with maritime lawyer Ross Toyne.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
The detention -- called an arrest -- of the Atlantica on September 24 would seem to be a happy ending to a sad tale of exploitation, but the final irony is that Asaulenko and the rest of the crew may wind up on a blacklist of their own. Bruce Jarvis, a professor of maritime law at Nova Southeastern University, says that when sailors stand up for their rights, no matter what extreme they were pushed to, they are often unable to find work. "Of course [ship owners] don't want to hire any of those people," Jarvis says, "because now they know about wages, they know about liens, they know about ship arrests, and they'll explain those things to the rest of the crew."
The Atlantica sailors are well-aware of the possible repercussions, but all they can do now is wait onboard, since their seaman's visas don't allow a long shore stay. Though they now have decent food and are being paid, courtesy of a court-appointed custodian, they face deportation and unemployment.
"I am just a wreck," Asaulenko says. "My nerves are bothering me. I haven't been able to talk to my family. Honestly, I don't want to bring it up with them."
Adds Toyne: "These are good guys. They want to work hard and get paid."