The Ship’s Captain Died at Sea. Six Months Later, His Body Was Still in the Freezer.

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Ports and governments forbid cargo ships from disembarking the remains of dead sailors

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lost at sea

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It was the 13th country to file a petition by Vantage Wave. Everyone had refused to take the dead body.

The plight of Captain Sandu, 68, born near the Black Sea, who decorated his home with mementos from sea life, had become a diplomatic event. “We all wanted our father to find a home,” said his son Andrei Sandu, also a ship captain. “How could this happen in 2021?”

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The strict and uneven rules governing the world’s ports prevent the unloading of bodies suspected of being infected with the coronavirus. Although the pandemic has eased somewhat, restrictions remain, leaving ships crossing the ocean like vantage points in search of a port to disembark a fallen crew member. Now many corpses are trapped on the world’s cargo ships, which are usually kept in freezers for food.

In September, a 23-year-old sailor from Ukraine died aboard a Swiss-flagged bulk carrier in China’s southeastern port of Rizhao, an apparent suicide. After Chinese authorities refused to take her body, the ship traveled nearly two months and more than 5,000 miles to Vancouver, where the Royal Canadian Mounted Police agreed to help retrieve her body. It’s still not home.

The body of a Syrian cook killed off the coast of Venezuela was trapped in it for four months. And when the captain of an Italian cargo-ship died off Indonesia, his body lay in a storeroom for six weeks, because the cold-storage was not large enough, decomposing in the tropical air. The bodies of four sailors are currently stranded on cargo ships, the International Maritime Organization says – as well as 36 urgent cases involving medical or humanitarian emergencies.

An Indian sailor, who was ill with severe COVID-19, was denied entry to Singapore, Malaysia and several other Asian ports before being brought back to India and put on a ventilator. When a Chinese officer aboard the Numax bulk carrier collapsed vomiting blood, Chinese port officials let him ashore briefly in an ambulance before returning to the ship with some bullets.

“We’re spending our lives here to bring stuff to your home,” Newmax’s captain Timur Rudov said in a YouTube video. “What do we get in return?” He yelled at the camera. “We’re not even allowed to get sick! We have to die.”

Jason Chuah, a professor of maritime law at the City University of London, said international maritime law states that shipowners must see to the crew that they get home after assignment, but the obligation vanishes immediately.

And while insurance companies are meant to contribute to the cost of a burial or cremation of a dead sailor, under an agreement called the Maritime Labor Convention, the treaty does not require them to bring a dead body home. For owners of cargo-laden ships to be delivered on deadline, returning to port to collect a corpse can be quite expensive.

This leaves the ship’s mates, lawyers, diplomats and all the families to navigate the ever-changing pandemic-era rules of the international maritime bureaucracy. The crew of a ship declared Surprise, the “Acts of God” section, which allowed him to travel more than 6,000 miles from Indonesia to Italy to return a dead captain.

“The frustrating thing about this is that the dead or the dead have no rights,” Mr Chua said. “This is a huge problem and has a very bad effect on our normal humanity.”

The body backlog is part of a wider problem of seafaring abandonment in the COVID-19 era. This year more than 1,000 people were stranded on container ships and bulk carriers without pay, according to estimates by the International Transport Workers’ Federation. This is a record stemming from both the pandemic-induced trade disruptions and the competitive nature of the lightly regulated global shipping industry.

an ocean life

Captain Dan Sandu almost didn’t board the Vantage Wave.

His wife, Gabriel, pleaded with him that what he had promised would not be the final assignment. She had seen reports of a new Covid-19 variant raging through India, where the ship would begin its voyage.

The couple, married for 44 years, were planning the next phase of their lives, looking for an apartment in Bucharest to be close to their grandchildren. “She made a promise to the owner and so she left,” said Gabrielle, as she drew black-and-white pictures of her husband as a young sailor on a coffee table. “But I felt bad. I told him several times, he shouldn’t go.”

Captain Sandu was in the final stages of his career, which began under the communist regime of Nicolae Ceauescu and lasted until the end of the Cold War and waves of globalization. Working for the state shipping company Navarome was one of the few jobs that allowed Romanians to travel abroad, and his wife’s father, brother and cousin, all sailors, encouraged him to join.

His first visit was in the 1970s, months after Chairman Mao’s death, where he brought some shell-shaped porcelain bowls. In the 1980s, he began smuggling souvenirs and consumer goods into his suitcase: a kilo of coffee, a brass Sphinx statue from Egypt, clothing for his wife, a wooden elephant from Southeast Asia for his children Statue and a VCR.

“We could watch movies, while others only had two hours of TV,” Andrei said.

The son followed his father in shipping, but as the industry changed in the early 2000s, Big Sandu weighed in on what to give up. The crew had become smaller and the captains spent most of their time staring at a screen. For home contact, Telegram gave way to satellite phones, then a rudimentary ship email system, and finally WhatsApp.

In 2017, Chile awarded Captain Sandu the Magellan Certificate for navigating the treacherous Straits of South America, as did the 16th-century explorer. But “from 10 years ago, he was fed up with this job,” Andrei said. “It’s not fun anymore… Now it’s blazing fast fast, everything must go fast.”

When the two discussed leaving, he joked that it was too late to pursue another career: “What am I going to do, wash the dishes?” Andrei remembers his father saying this.

last trip

On 27 March, Captain Sandu arrived in India to board the Vantage Wave, which was loaded with 25,000 tonnes of aluminum ingots, headed for the Chinese port of Guangzhou. A day’s stream of inspectors, port officers and shipping agents rode aboard a giant red-hulled bulk carrier covered with four rusty cranes.

Two weeks later, Captain Sandu called his wife with a worrying update. Two of the crew members were ill, and thought it was Covid-19. One had a fever of 103.1 degrees. Bosun had gone ashore twice for hospital treatment and came back with a bag of pills. He tested negative, the ship’s Greek owner, Vantage Shipping Lines SA, said.

The ship sailed on 15 April, heading south-east towards Singapore, leaving behind a crew member because it was taking too long to get her hospital results. “I wonder who will be the next case?” Captain Sandu emailed his wife the next day.

Two days later he got another message. Captain Sandu said he had a “little cold” and had isolated himself in his cabin. The ship’s chief officer was now in charge.

The crew reported their symptoms to a medical center on land, which concluded that Captain Sandu did not have COVID, Vantage Shipping said.

“All will be well,” he told his wife in an email at 9:11.

Two days later, Andrei Sandu received a call while driving in crowded traffic in the Romanian capital, Bucharest. His father had died.

“I parked my car and stopped…

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