Debt fight leaves unpaid crew stuck for months on ship off Georgia

The Newlead Castellano currently docked at Colonial Terminals in Savannah, Ga for refueling and supplies Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2016. A legal battle over debt has left a cargo ship and its 15-member crew stuck off the coast of Georgia for nearly four months. U.S. marshals seized the Newlead Castellano in mid-April after it sailed into Savannah with carrying sugar. A judge ordered the ship idled while creditors sued the ship's owner, saying they were owed $7.1 million.

SAVANNAH, Ga. - The crew of the Newlead Castellano already had reason to complain, having not been paid for roughly two months when the cargo ship sailed into Savannah to offload a shipment of imported sugar.

Then U.S. marshals seized the 590-foot ship, forcing it to drop anchor off the Georgia coast and wait out a legal dispute between the vessel's owners and their creditors.

Nearly four months have passed and 15 crew members remain stuck on board a few miles out to sea, within view of the beach sands of Tybee Island but legally prohibited from setting foot on land because they are foreign nationals with limited visas.

"It's fairly calm, a little boring," said Alan Swimmer, president of National Maritime Services, whose job is to secure the ship and care for its crew as a court-appointed custodian. "There are some standard watches they have to perform, whether the ship is operating or not. So they're performing daily duties, probably doing a little bit of fishing in between."

The crew, all Filipinos save for a Greek engineer and a Romania electrician, got caught in the middle of a legal battle after the Newlead Castellano's owner, Newlead Holdings of Greece, fell behind on its debt payments. Four creditors who loaned the owner cash to buy the ship filed suit April 19 in U.S. District Court, saying they were owed $7.1 million.

A judge ordered federal marshals to seize the ship before it left Savannah. And days spent idle at sea turned into months.

The ship's first officer, Cecilio Calo Yting, told The Associated Press the ship's owner had not paid the crew for more than two months when the vessel was seized. Reached on Facebook and communicating via online instant messages, Yting said the crew was well. Still, he complained of boredom and the inability to come ashore to go shopping.

"We are fortunate that this happened here in the U.S.," said Yting, who noted the crew has been getting paid while idled and has been promised back wages owed by its previous employer once sailors leave the ship. "Praise God all things worked together for good."

Now the crew's ordeal is nearing an end. The ship was sold Monday at auction for $7.4 million. Court records identified the buyer as Strategic Shipping Inc. A judge still must approve the sale, which Swimmer said could take a week or two, before the crew can return home.

Since being seized in April, the Newlead Castellano has made monthly trips into port in Savannah to refuel and restock supplies - mostly groceries such as chicken, fish, fruits and vegetables for the crew. Creditors who had the ship seized have been footing the bill, as well as paying the crew's wages, said Todd Baiad, the creditors' attorney.

Baiad said creditors have spent more than $500,000 looking after the ship and crew. He's made several trips to the ship to pay the sailors and even arranged for a local Roman-Catholic priest to come aboard and hold Mass for the crew.

"When I go out there, I've got a briefcase full of cash I'm handing them, so they're happy to see me," Baiad said. Morale seemed to be good. "I think being a mariner and sailor, one of the issues you face is being out at sea for a great length of time. But they're happy and ready to go home."

Thomas Bass Jr., an attorney for Newlead Holdings subsidiaries named in the court case, declined to comment when reached by phone Tuesday.

Once a judge approves the sale of the ship, the crew will likely be bused to Atlanta to board flights to their home countries, Swimmer said. Once they set foot on land, he said, the sailors will remain under guard to ensure they don't try to stay in the U.S.

Swimmer said his company handles roughly 35 cases a year in which commercial ships get seized in disputed between creditors and their owners. Usually the parties reach an agreement within a few days and the ships get released. But roughly 20 percent take a month or longer, he said.

"I've got two ships right now that have similar circumstances," Swimmer said. "This happens. It's not a rare occurrence."