SÈTE - A waiter enters the officers’ mess hall and, very formally, lays down a plate of lentils and mutton. Under a portrait of the Moroccan royal family, a clock strikes noon, lunchtime aboard the Bni N'sar. Near the ship’s empty swimming pool, sailors – each with his own task – are working busily with tools, ropes and other equipment, as if this were just an ordinary day.
Except it’s not. In its own way, the Bni N'sar is sinking – and everyone knows it. Of course, this isn’t one of those epic catastrophes that involve a brutal storm or a deadly run in with an iceberg. Instead, the Bni N'sar is in the midst of a motionless shipwreck, one that’s being caused not by mother nature, but by people in suits and ties.
For the past five months the Moroccan boat has been holed up in the harbor of Sète, in southern France. It’s one of three ferries that have been ordered by a court in Montpellier to be seized because of debts accrued by the Tangier-based company that owns them. Stuck on board the three vessels are about 200 crewmen and their officers.
On board, everything is stopping little by little. The ships are out of fuel. The lights have been switched off and it’s getting colder and colder. There’s no hot water anymore, barely any cold water, and the toilets are sealed. The paint peels off and mussels have begun to colonize sea water pipes. The crew has not been paid for months.
Sometimes, a van delivers some food. Occasionally, when food runs out completely, the company – which is called Comanav-Comarit – sends 1,000 or 2,000 euros, just enough to allow one of the officers to buy baguettes and cans of tuna. The crew members are ashamed. “The fact that our company gave us up is like a stain on the Moroccan flag,” one crew member explains. Associations sometimes drop off clothes and food in front of the ferries, but the crew members won’t take it. “We are not beggars: we have a noble and courageous job and we should be the ones who give to others.”
Another ship claimed by debt
In Sète, like in any other harbor, these lost ships stories have become commonplace: they are everywhere, more and more every year, abandoned because of bankruptcies and failures. According to the International Transport Workers' Federation, only 6,000 of the 40,000 ships in circulation meet standards. “And the crisis is leading us to an even worse situation,” explains Jean-Luc Bou, a teacher who in 2004 helped organize a Defense Association for Sète’s many abandoned sailors.
On Jan. 6, when the Marrakech – one of the three ferries – arrived in Sète, it had just enough fuel to reach the shore – not a drop more. Comanav-Comarit had purchased the fuel on credit, digging itself even deeper into debt. In total the ferry company, which has been transporting people between France and Morocco for three decades, owes some 200 million euros. Which is why upon its arrival in Sète, the Marrakech was met by a bailiff. The day before, two of Comanav-Comarit’s other ships, the Bni N'sar and Biladi, were also grounded.
Passengers who’d gathered at the port to take the ferries back to Morocco were advised over loudspeakers that their trips were cancelled, without any refund or rescheduling. Security guards and dogs were eventually needed to evacuate the crowd.
Aboard the jammed ferries, the crew members were told the situation wouldn’t last forever. But their optimism was short-lived: the three ferries never left. Calling home has become a torturous task for some of the crew. Families, for whom money isn't arriving anymore, “constantly talk about bills that can’t be paid,” one technician sighs. Some crew members need to sell their houses and take their children out of private schools.
Each sailor for himself
The company, meanwhile, has been conspicuously quiet. It has yet to offer the stranded crew members a solution to their predicament, but warns them that they’ll be fired if they complain. Only Hervé Parage and Jacques Casabianca, two French captains who take turns at the head of the Bni N’sar, allow crew members to speak openly about the problem and let journalists go onboard. When Hervé Parage tries to consult officers from the two other ferries, they tell him to mind his own business.
Aboard the ferries, each captain has begun to decree his own laws. On the Biladi, young crew members were not allowed to come ashore for weeks. The captain is Croatian and he speaks neither French nor Arabic. He watches TV all day, holed up in his cabin, the only place on the boat that still has electricity. Another officer soon took power, instituting an 11:30 p.m. curfew.
Marrakech’s captain, Ahcen Nabil, 53, tries not to complain. The company doesn’t take his calls and he doesn’t try to gather his men anymore because he has nothing to tell them. For him, commanding a stationary boat is even worse than facing a storm on the high seas.
An Italian company is expected to take over the Tanger-Sète service soon. That will bring traffic back to Sète’s harbor, which has a shortfall of 1.5 million euros because of the lack of ferries and their 200,000 annual passengers. But the future of Comanav-Comarit’s ferries and crew members is still unclear. “If we leave, it’s over. There’s no way for us to keep our jobs and to get our wages,” a sailor says. Some of them are afraid to go back home, because of their debts. A repatriation plan is under consideration.
In another corner of the harbor, a landing dock has been nicknamed “the oblivion pier.” This is where abandoned ships come to die. The Marrakech could be headed there soon.
Read more from Le Monde in French.
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