Greek sailors watch over spurned ship in Croatia

SPLIT – Every morning Paraskevas Liakakos rows from his stranded ship to the nearby harbor in search of free coffee and the company of locals sympathetic to his plight. «My muscles are so strong now I could compete at the next Olympics in Athens, but under the Croatian flag,» joked the 52-year-old Greek sailor with his only regular visitors, members of a Croatian sailors’ union who bring in fresh supplies twice a month. Liakakos is one of five Greek sailors aboard the Elpida, a tug which broke down on May 21 near the Adriatic port of Split and has been anchored a mile off the coast ever since. Liakakos may sound cheerful, but his mood is grim. «I see black when I wake up and I see black when I close my eyes at night. My family in Greece fell apart because of this,» he said. Under international maritime law a ship must not be left without the crew at any time. If it is docked, someone has to remain on board and the cost of docking must be fully covered. Since the boat broke down, Liakakos and his companions, having spent what money they had, have had to stay anchored outside the harbor and wait, entirely dependent on the mercy of strangers. At sailors’ mercy When the boat’s engines failed in May, two people were sent to try to fix the generators – without success. The boat has been without power since and no further repairs have been attempted. The crew says the owners, the Portolos Tugs salvage company from Piraeus, have not contacted them and that they have not been paid. The company was not available for comment. The Greek Embassy in Zagreb has offered to fly the men home but they cannot leave the boat. Milko Kronja, a member of the local sailors’ union and an inspector with the International Transport Workers Federation, said the Elpida has been abandoned by everyone. «We are the only ones who look after the crew. We provide them with petroleum lamps, canned food and water every two weeks, sometimes more often, when there are donations from local people or the Red Cross,» he said. Fresh food is rarely taken aboard because there is no refrigeration. Union members bring mobile phone cards to enable the stranded Greeks to call home. The Elpida set sail from Piraeus for Rhodes on May 10 only to change course – on instruction from the owners – for the Croatian port of Zadar, where the crew was to load cages for tuna fish and take them to Malta. Between Zadar and Split the engines failed. Ecological threat The port authorities in Split want a quick solution to the problem, not only for the sake of the sailors but because the Elpida represents a potential ecological threat to this Mediterranean tourist resort. «Six tons of oil, 15 tons of fuel and 30 tons of muddy water could badly affect the sea if the ship is left to rot here,» said crew member Georgios Mutsakis. Greek Embassy representatives have visited the Elpida twice but left only promises of help, Liakakos said. «They brought two bottles of whisky and 200 euros for each of us but said we should repay it once we got back home,» said Mutsakis. «I am deeply disappointed by the Greek authorities. If it wasn’t for my three children, I would stay in Croatia,» he said. The rusting Elpida was built 21 years ago in Romania and first named the Alexandria 3. Kronja said repairs would cost some $50,000, while towing the boat back to Greece would be $30,000. «However, the Greek side has showed no interest in covering the expenses apart from the air tickets home for the sailors,» he said. The five crew are keeping the ship clean and in good shape, but it is hard work. They have turned one of the cabins into a larder and started preparing for what could be a difficult winter. On sunny days, they wash their clothes and bed linen and hang them on ropes spread along the deck. Their supply of washing powder is giving out and the water tanks are running dry. Occasionally, each man leaves the ship for a few hours to take a stroll around Split and have coffee in their preferred coffee shop, the Moby Dick, owned by a former basketball player who once lived in Greece. «It is for the sake of our mental health, although you can’t do much but walk when you are out of money,» the captain said. While the local authorities step up efforts, including talks with the ship’s owners, to have the Elpida brought into dock by the end of October, before winter sets in, the sailors remain skeptical. «After five months like this, how could one be optimistic for a quick and happy outcome?» the captain said.