Crew marooned on bankrupt vessel gets support from Apostleship of the Sea

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WASHINGTON — Dec. 20 was the last day of autumn. It was also the three-month mark that the crew of the Newlead Granadino remained at anchor near the Port of Baltimore.

The owner of the Granadino, an asphalt and bitumen tanker, declared bankruptcy during the ship's voyage. The vessel is now owned by a bank, which could try selling it whole, or have it sent to Texas to be torn apart for scrap.

"It's like cars with their license plate, or VIN number. It's a very complicated legal thing," said Msgr. John FitzGerald, head of the Apostleship of the Sea for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Under bankruptcy, he explained, "they take the VIN number away from the ship, so to speak. Once that happens, that's no longer a ship. It's a piece of steel in the water. It gets auctioned and goes to a scrapyard, and it gets broken up."

That's cold comfort for the Romanian master — merchant marine parlance for captain — and the 11 Filipino crewmen left aboard the Maltese-flagged Granadino. But the Apostleship of the Sea, the Port of Baltimore's chaplaincy office, and others have done what they can to attend to the spiritual and temporal needs of the men.

The fact that the boat is near the port — but not actually docked there — presents the biggest challenge.

The port will not allow the boat to sit in a dock, since those docks are liquid parking spaces to load and unload cargo.

Individuals seeking permission to get access to the port require a background check by the federal Transportation Security Administration, which took over responsibility for all U.S. ports after the 9/11 terror attacks of 2001. The process can take as little as 15 minutes, but it can also take up to two hours. Even so, two representatives of the Embassy of the Philippines made a trip in December to talk with their countrymen stranded aboard the Granadino, which is floating on the Patapsco River in Baltimore. But to get to the ship, they had to commission a tugboat to take them to the vessel.

Six crewmen who had been on the ship the longest were repatriated. The rest did not have the proper visa to set foot on U.S. territory. Further, their employment contract requires them to stay with the Granadino until its "mission" is completed — and despite the asphalt having been unloaded, the mission has not yet been declared completed. Should they step off the boat before completion, they would be considered in breach of contract, which could ruin their chances to work as merchant seamen ever again.

All supplies have to be sent by tugboat. The Granadino has become, in essence, a charity case.

The hot and steamy days of late summer, when the Granadino first reached Baltimore, have since changed to the chill of winter. And for men on a metal ship, that can be brutal.

The Rev. Mary Davisson, an Episcopal minister with the Baltimore International Seafarers Center, an ecumenical port ministry, told Catholic News Service that the 8-year-old ship's air conditioning and heating system had gone out of whack while at anchor. Supplies delivered to counter that outage have included winter wear, such as long johns, and space heaters. 

Urban Pirates, which conducts pirate-themed boat tours around Baltimore's Inner Harbor, made a deal with nearby restaurants to deliver donated hot meals once a week to the crew. The Knights of Columbus donated a large-screen television, said Msgr. FitzGerald. The crew already had a large-screen TV, but it did not work with U.S. TV signals.

Msgr. FitzGerald was stymied in his efforts to board the Granadino to celebrate Mass. He was set to do so the week before Christmas, but became ill the day of the scheduled Mass and had to scuttle his tugboat trip to the vessel.

What made matters worse was a late-2016 fire that rendered the apostleship's offices unusable, destroying its computers and furniture. The apostleship has been using a spare room in a nearby mall until its original quarters can be repaired.

But that did not deep-six aid efforts. The mid-Atlantic's Filipino-American community came through with clothing, toiletries and reading materials, said Msgr. FitzGerald. He said he supplemented their contributions with religious goods befitting crew members from a nation where four out of five people profess Catholicism.

"Scapulars, rosaries, Bibles, religious literature and tracts," he told CNS. "We give them all the used Catholic magazines and all the unsold (church vestibule) literature. People who subscribe to America, St. Anthony Messenger, U.S. Catholic, we give it to them. Seafarers read a lot. When you're not on shift, there's not a lot to do. Reading helps your mind."

"They have no idea of Catholic parish life. They have no experience of it at all, so they've got to get it on their own. Evangelization is a big part of this ministry. Sacramental celebrations, they just love it. When we have Mass and benediction, I try to give them DVDs of famous preachers," Msgr. FitzGerald added. "If we can get DVDs and CDs out there, they can pass them around, or gather in a group and just play it themselves. Then we'd give them the addresses of as many Catholic internet organizations as we can," although internet access is often subject to the master's approval, since Wi-Fi is needed for navigation today.

One plus for the Granadino's crew: They have received some back pay from the bank that holds the mortgage on the ship. Frequently, crewmen get just a fraction of what they're owed from a bankrupt vessel — and sometimes don't get paid at all.

The Granadino's master did not respond to a request for permission to board the ship in the event that Msgr. FitzGerald could celebrate Mass there. However, noted Rev. Davisson, "the master of the ship sent a message about how kind the people of Baltimore have been to him and his crew during this ordeal — a very appreciative note."

"(St.) John Paul II called merchant seafarers 'the invisible strangers in our midst,' and I thought that was a beautiful way of putting it," Msgr. FitzGerald said. "They come and go into our largest metropolitan areas, which are usually major ports. No one sees them when they come, no one sees them when they're here, no one sees them when they go."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017