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Stuck on a vessel off South Philly, Ukrainian seamen watch their homeland at war

Seven Ukrainian men have been stuck on a merchant vessel in South Philly since July 2021. Now they watch as their country goes to war, unable to return.

The seven men of the Ocean Force merchant ship have been stuck on the ship since July 2021. First row, from left to right Engineer Vadym Koval, Officer Vitaliy Boyko, Captain Gennadiy Shevchenko, Chief Engineer Vladimir Shykhov. Second row, from left to right, Steward Andriy Tiupa, Chief Officer Viktor Kushmyla, Boatswain Sergiy Kuzhbarenko.
The seven men of the Ocean Force merchant ship have been stuck on the ship since July 2021. First row, from left to right Engineer Vadym Koval, Officer Vitaliy Boyko, Captain Gennadiy Shevchenko, Chief Engineer Vladimir Shykhov. Second row, from left to right, Steward Andriy Tiupa, Chief Officer Viktor Kushmyla, Boatswain Sergiy Kuzhbarenko.Read moreCourtesy of Gennadiy Shevchenko

Captain Gennadiy Shevchenko of the Ocean Force merchant vessel has been away from his home in Odesa, Ukraine, for nearly eight months. He hasn’t seen his daughter or her mother. Docked in the Delaware River, he can only watch as his country defends itself in a war with Russia.

“It is impossible that your neighbors are shooting at another neighbor,” the 60-year-old sea captain said. “This is outrageous.”

Through the internet, the seven crew members follow the news and check in on their families in Ukraine over WhatsApp, an international messaging application.

There’s little else they can do. They’ve been marooned since July, in legal limbo. The heavy load carrier’s previous owner ran out of money, according to a lawsuit filed in federal court in Delaware, and the crew hasn’t been paid between November and March.

With their contract up in a couple of weeks, they had been trying to get that money, which would have let them return home. But now the airspace over Ukraine is closed.

So their lives are contained to the 348-foot-long and 66-foot-wide vessel, docked in South Philadelphia.

Asked about the sadness he and his crew are feeling, the captain brought up what Americans went through two years ago, as they watched in stunned silence the murder of George Floyd. Daily, he said, he and his men see Ukrainians abandon their homes in search of safety.

The crew pine for the port city of Odesa, known as “the Pearl of the Black Sea,” where many of them are from.

Some days, what Shevchenko hears from his family is better than what he sees and hears on the news. Other days, it’s worse. Although no one in the crew has lost a family member in the conflict, some have lost friends.

One million people have fled Ukraine so far. Another million have left their homes for parts of the country not yet touched by the violence. The United Nations predicts that 10 million Ukrainians could be displaced as a result of the war, with an estimated four million becoming refugees.

Meanwhile, the men of the Ocean Force are trying to figure out what they’ll do next.

A growing conflict at sea and home

The growing war back home is not their only problem.

The vessel, which normally carries cars and boats and other heavy items, is at the center of a legal battle almost as complex as the international supply chains the ship once serviced.

According to a federal lawsuit, the Belizean-flagged ship was chartered in 2020 by a Panamanian shipping company, CAC Maritime Limited, from the ship owners Redbrick Ventures Inc. — a holding company traced back to a firm in Odesa.

CAC Maritime contends it discovered the ship was already laden with six containers containing antimony potassium tartrate, a potentially toxic substance. The excess cargo made it difficult for the Ocean Force to pick up its full manifest, and the ship encountered other delays in the Caribbean before landing in Wilmington.

Unable to pick up a full load, CAC Maritime secured a federal warrant to hold the Ocean Force in port last February, claiming Redbrick owed it more than a half million dollars in damages. After nearly a full year in moorage, Redbrick claimed it was out of money and last month the vessel was auctioned off by U.S. Marshals to the highest bidder, Alexander Navigation. The seven-man Ukrainian team had started working on the ship in July.

The new owners took possession this week and want the men to leave at the end of their contract so the vessel can be towed and fixed in the Caribbean.

A private guard now stands watch over the men, as they are not legally allowed into the country, a requirement of the Department of Homeland Security.

The men could seek asylum, but that wouldn’t be a guaranteed way to stay or avoid a detention center, said Alex Isbell, immigration lawyer and partner at Palladino, Isbell & Casazza.

“They would need to express an individualized fear of return to Ukraine that’s based on their race, their religion, their national origin, their political opinions, or membership in a particular social group,” he said. “And it’s impossible to know whether, based on their personal circumstances, any of the crew members will qualify for asylum.”

While Homeland Security granted temporary protected status for Ukrainian nationals on Thursday, that might not apply to the men because they technically have not been in the United States since before a March 1 cutoff, and have no passport stamps or necessary paperwork.

J. Stephen Simms, a Baltimore-based maritime lawyer, is representing the men pro bono. The goal, he says, is to “get them paid, get them taken care of, get them home.”

‘Keep your fingers crossed’

Shevchenko was in high spirits this week as he thanked organizations like the International Transport Workers Federation, the Seamen’s Church Institute of Philadelphia and South Jersey, and the Coast Guard for helping where they could.

Each day the crew do what they can to stay busy, such as keep the generators running and perform maintenance while soaking in as much sun as they can.

Shevchenko checks in on his daughter and asks her mom about everyone’s health, how they’re holding up. With some luck, he said, everything will turn out all right.

He has a message to them and to fellow Ukrainians:

“Keep your fingers crossed and God will bless us.”