War In Ukraine

A Long Way Home for Ukrainian Sailors

Stranded in Philly, they watch the war at home from afar

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The Ukrainian crew was celebrating with cheesesteak sandwiches on board the cargo ship Ocean Force in late February. After more than a year on anchor in Delaware Bay and dockside in Philadelphia, repairs had been made, and the seven remaining crew members—the minimum required to maintain the cargo vessel while in port—had received long-overdue back pay. A new owner had taken over. They were going home.

And then Russian bombs began falling on their homeland and Russian infantry poured across the border. It was Wednesday evening, February 23, in Philadelphia, already Thursday in Ukraine.

“I was on my way home from the ship about one o’clock in the morning when I got a call from a sailor’s wife back in Ukraine. I couldn’t understand what she was saying, but she was very upset,” says Barbara Shipley in a phone interview with the Voice. Shipley is an inspector with the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), a global trade union that has been assisting the crew for months. “The war had started. They weren’t going anywhere.”    

Nowhere is exactly where the Ocean Force and its shipment of used cars—originally intended for Haiti, where the shipment ran into legal problems—has gone since docking more than 14 months ago.

Long before Russian president Vladimir Putin set out to conquer Ukraine—a campaign that President Biden has said includes genocide—the 39-year-old ship was beset by troubles. The problems have included a broken boiler, rendering the ship without heat; a backed-up sewage tank; a busted stern ramp, which is used to unload vehicles in transport; and a rupture in the hull, which, though modest and patched, was not repaired well enough to satisfy inspectors. “Big ship, big headache,” says Alexander Saleh, 67, the vessel’s new owner, interviewed on the ship’s bridge in early April.

Unlike the crew, Saleh, a Turkish-born Greek residing in Cardiff who lived in Britain for some time, speaks English very well. The sailors, though Ukrainian, speak to each other in Russian.  (Assistance from those with better English provided the translations.) “In school I learned Ukrainian and Russian,” says first officer Viktor Kushmila, whose home is in Vinnytsia, a city of approximately 370,000 about 280 miles south of Kyiv. “Most Ukrainians in Odesa speak Russian. It’s our history.” Kushmila, 56, is the father of a seaman. “He’s on a ship somewhere,” he says, between making rounds on deck.

The issue that first brought the Ocean Force to the attention of authorities was several months of back wages owed the crew by the previous owner, Primeshipping, which has offices in Odesa. Primeshipping had told the Ocean Force’s captain, Gennadiy Shevchenko, that the lack of heat wasn’t a big deal, that it was cold in Ukraine too. “They said we could survive as well as the previous crew,” remembers Shevchenko.

By the time a blizzard hit the East Coast, this past January, “They were sitting on a freezing ship, unpaid,” J. Stephen Simms tells the Voice. Simms, a Baltimore-based maritime attorney, has played two roles in the saga. At first, he represented CAC, the chartering company that engaged Primeshipping for the ill-fated Haiti trip. When Primeshipping breached that contract, Simms says, CAC declared bankruptcy. After the snowstorm, Simms was retained by the sailors, and in light of their circumstances, he provided his services pro bono.

Shipley, of the ITF, drove to Philly from her home in Norfolk, Virginia, on January 29 and bought seven queen-size comforters at Ross Dress for Less, a bunch of hand warmers, and then picked up three large pizzas (one of them with anchovies, at the request of Captain Shevchenko). It was 21 degrees on deck and snowing hard. In the crew’s cabins, the temperature was 32. The following day, Helene Pierson, executive director of the Seamen’s Church Institute of Philadelphia and South Jersey, bought a shopping cart’s worth of space heaters for the cabins, mess hall, and galley. Pierson then spent three days scouring the city for the proper voltage converters, so the heaters could be plugged into the ship’s grid. “It was a complicated situation that became more and more complicated [as war loomed],” says Simms.

Once the Russian invasion began, the remaining crew members on the 348-foot roll-on/roll-off off vessel (designed to carry wheeled cargo) were stuck. And they couldn’t leave the ship in Philadelphia until red tape regarding a range of immigration issues was resolved. Technically, the men are not refugees, thus President Biden’s recent executive order to let into the U.S. 100,000 Ukrainians displaced by war does not cover them. But through the work of Shipley; Iryna Mazur, honorary consul of Ukraine in Philadelphia; the Coast Guard, the Customs Border Patrol, and the offices of Pennsylvania senator Bob Casey Jr. and Virginia senator Mark Warner, the crew’s situation has been ameliorated. Now given “temporary protective status,” the men will not have to wait in a detention center to be processed, as those seeking asylum in other situations must do. Instead, if all goes as planned, by late April they will be introduced to the Ukrainian community of Philadelphia, where, Pierson says, Ukrainian Eastern Orthodox and Ukrainian Catholic parishes are eager to welcome them.

Some, like Captain Shevchenko, a 60-year-old third-generation sailor, would like to stay in the United States. “I can do whatever I like. I’m divorced and my daughter is grown,” says Shevchenko of his 38-year-old daughter, Valeria, a general surgeon in Odesa who, he explains without getting into specifics, is helping the Ukrainian war effort. Others may choose to go home.

On April 11, Shipley received a text from a young mariner who worked in the Ocean Force engine room under the previous owner. “I changed careers and joined the Army,” he wrote, adding that Ukrainian forces are in need of basics such as bulletproof vests, helmets, and ammunition. “I’m now defending my country in Eastern Ukraine.” For the time being, he reported, his family was safe.

 

You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you
—Attributed to Leon Trotsky

 

As of the Voice’s print deadline, the ship remained dockside at Pier No. 88, awaiting permission to be towed to the Bahamas for further repairs, foremost among them the patched hole in the hull. Onboard with Shevchenko and Kushmila were third officer Vitaliy Boyko, bosun Sergiy Kuzhbarenko, chief engineer Volodymyr Shykhov, second engineer, Vadym Koval, and a 19-year-old maritime cadet turned reluctant cook named Andrii Tiupa, who was thrust into the job when the last cook signed off last fall.

Ocean Force owner Saleh has been with the crew since the war started. Trading as Alexander Navigation, Saleh says he bought the German-built vessel from Primeshipping for $500,000 at a virtual auction just hours before the war began, reflagging the ship from registration in Belize to the Marshall Islands. He estimates that it will take another $250,000 of repairs in the Bahamas to make it seaworthy. With his British passport, Saleh has been able to go into Philadelphia for a haircut and a few pints of a favorite beverage, Guinness Stout, and, with Pierson driving, make food runs to keep the ship’s larder stocked.

Most of the crew members are from the 18th-century port of Odesa—the “Pearl of the Black Sea”—or nearby villages. Bosun Kuzhbarenko, 53, is from Mariupol, a port city demolished by the Russians where, according to President Zelenskyy, “tens of thousands are dead.” After Russia failed to capture the capital city, Kyiv, it turned its forces upon the eastern coastline. At press time, Russia was demanding Mariupol’s surrender, with both soldiers and civilians under brutal attack.

Kuzhbarenko, a blond, bearded man with a ponytail, hadn’t heard from his family for weeks. Cell communication was down, the Red Cross had termed the situation there “apocalyptic,” and he’d received no email or any other communications. While speaking with me, Kuzhbarenko’s eyes filled with tears and he turned away, shaking his head “No” when asked to talk about the situation.  (Afterward, Kuzhbarenko  heard from his sister and learned that she and his wife had been evacuated from Mariupol.)

And so the men work—their confinement “both comforting but excruciating,” says attorney Simms—their labors a chance, perhaps, to think of something besides the horror in their homeland. The engineers make rounds and the mates do the same on deck, in view of a once-grand and long-moored and rusting ocean liner, the S.S. United States, whose maiden voyage was in 1952, when Soviet Ukraine was known as the breadbasket of Europe. Captain Shevchenko keeps the crew loose with humor and goodwill; he and engineer Shykhov are close friends, having sailed together for decades. As leaders of the ship, they have earned high marks for maintaining morale during the months of no pay and inadequate amounts of water and provisions on a broken, unheated vessel.

In the galley, young Andrii calls his mother—a postal worker named Natalia—back in the Odesa suburb of Kuchurgan, on the border of Moldova, for recipes. His father is a truck driver, and at the time we speak, not directly involved with the military. “I don’t like cooking, I’m a sailor,” Andrii says, cutting carrots and potatoes for stew, the remains of breakfast (a few cold eggs, a sliver of ham) in a skillet on the stove. Confined to the ship since last September— “No shore pass,” he says, “just this ship”—Andrii was scheduled to sit for his Ukrainian deck officer’s exam around the time the war started, instead trading his marlinspike for a spatula. Now—no awarding of a third-mate’s license; no soccer (he’d wanted to see a Philadelphia Union professional game); no fishing, for which he brought his rod from home, though he does fry store-bought mackerel as the ship’s one-man steward department. And most tortuous of all, no girlfriend at his side. Back home, 16-year-old Karina trades calls and texts with Andrii. He plans to marry her when she turns 18, and then, dream of dreams, start a family in America.

We communicate with hand gestures, Andrii’s bare-bones English, and Google Translate, passing his smartphone back and forth as he cues up English to Russian and vice versa. During one of our exchanges—about the Russian word for “mailman,” —I joke about whether his girlfriend ever scrolls through his phone. “She knows my password,” he says, dead serious. “I have no secrets.”

I was a teenage sailor once upon a time, when Gerald Ford was president, back when communicating with friends and lovers (and Mom) back home was done by handwritten letter and pay phones on the docks. I signed on to the fabled Puerto Rican container ship Mayaguez as an ordinary seaman in June 1976, just a week out of high school. The year before, soon after the fall of Saigon, the ship had been seized by the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia. U.S. Marines recaptured the ship a few days later in a four-day battle—considered the last of the Vietnam War—where at least 17 U.S. servicemen perished. I knew none of this when I climbed the gangway at Dundalk Marine Terminal, in Baltimore, with a duffel bag crammed with books, a cassette player, and tapes of Roxy Music, Frank Zappa, and The Who (Quadrophenia). Unlike young Andrii, I had plenty of secrets, and I kept them in the pages of a thick journal I made out of photocopied pictures—Robin Tower, Johnny Winter, Ziggy Stardust—from Creem magazine.

Years later, ashamed of things that once excited me, I dumped my Summer of ’76 journal, my thoughts and dreams scribbled on the backs of those xeroxed photos, in the trash and watched a garbage truck haul it down the alley. All these years later, those secrets don’t mean much, but I sure wish I had all of the forgotten notes taken while sailing between Baltimore, Puerto Rico, New Orleans, and back again—like saying goodbye to my Italian grandmother on her deathbed, and the first time I saw the stone walls of Castillo San Felipe del Morro while pulling into San Juan harbor.

Though my father was a lifetime chief engineer, both on deep-sea vessels and tugboats, I knew as much about seafaring as Andrii knows about cooking. The Greek officers called me “Junior,” as Ocean Force chief engineer Shykhov refers to Andrii as the ship’s “son.” (Only, the Ukrainians say it with affection.) I went for adventure—what kids who wanted to be writers did before the advent of the MFA industry—and to make money for college. Same ship the next summer, though this time I sailed as a wiper in the engine room, like my Pop did in 1951, when he began his career on a Bethlehem Steel ore run from Baltimore to Chile and back. There’s nothing quite like the scent of a diesel-perfumed engine room on a ship, a potent cocktail of cold steel, grease, petroleum products, and seawater. And nothing, science has shown, spurs memory as vividly as smell. Because of the famous madeleine scene in the novel In Search of Lost Time, the moment in which the cookie is dipped into hot tea and floods the narrator with emotion, the connection between smell and memory is known as “the Proust effect,” in honor of the author. So when Chief Shykhov walked me through the engine room of the Ocean Force, I was moved when that mix of smells hit me. And transported—at first taken back to the summer of reading Dickens on the Mayaguez stern and then, more powerfully, back to childhood, when I rode tugboats with my father, who spent most of his career keeping the Baltimore tug America in running order.

My father passed away last August, at 87, and—wise enough to know that his first-born barely knew a wrench from a screwdriver—never wanted me to follow him down to the piers. But he was more than generous with a sea story, and I’ve been writing them down since my first byline about a Baltimore longshoremen’s strike in 1977, the year I quit seafaring to work at the Baltimore Sun.

Shykhov, 60, is a large, bald-headed man given to ready smiles and jokes, a big-hearted fellow who, in another life, might have had a slapstick career in vaudeville. As we squeeze through a passageway, I notice he is wearing bedroom slippers with his overalls. It wasn’t his shift, but he was eager to help me tell the crew’s story. “We’re always on board, never leave—you go a little crazy,” he tells me. “The captain is optimistic, and that helps.”

Saleh has signed a contract with Dann Ocean Towing, out of Florida, for the services of the 4,600-horsepower tugboat Comet, an American-flagged vessel docked in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Once the Ocean Force is made fast to the tug for a “dead tow” to the Bahamas, the crew will come ashore, pass through the security gate, and return to society. If all goes according to schedule, they will soon spend time—if not with their own families back in Ukraine—with families in Philly with ties to their homeland.

Saleh plans to hire a crew in the Bahamas to take the vessel to a shipyard in Turkey, or perhaps Lebanon. Once there, the cars onboard will be unloaded for sale. Like everything else in the shipping business, particularly as it concerns the Ocean Force, there’s a very good chance that nothing will go as planned.  ❖

A former staff writer for the HBO drama The Wire, Alvarez is the author of a dozen books, both fiction and nonfiction, about Baltimore. Don’t Count Me Out, his book about the unlikely redemption of a violent Baltimore junkie, will be released in September by Cornell University Press.

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