Mike Gilberto landed a big bluefish last April while trolling near a freighter anchored in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay. He laughingly noted the name of the ship, Panamax Star, and told his companions it marked a hot spot to return to.
He was kidding, because the ships that anchor off Annapolis generally stay only a day or two while waiting for space to open on the Baltimore docks. Gilberto did not expect to see the Panamax Star again.
But when he went fishing a week later, the 796-foot vessel had not budged. She was still around in May when the first afternoon squall of the summer season struck. In June, sailors racing in the Annapolis Yacht Club's Wednesday night series could take bearings off Panamax Star, and the ship's crew of Burmese and Taiwanese nationals lined the rails July 4 to enjoy the fireworks in Annapolis.
She's still out there today, enmeshed in a legal battle that has stranded 21 members of her crew.
Panamax Star has not weighed anchor for more than seven months, since she was "arrested" March 7 by U.S. marshals for nonpayment of debts. Barnacles are growing on her anchor chain.
Bearing a load of 54,000 metric tons of coal bound for Taiwan, she moves four times a day, but only slightly, swinging on her steel tether to point north toward Baltimore when the tide ebbs, then shifting to aim south toward Norfolk when it turns to flood six hours later.
Numbers on the ship's side say her bulk sits 39 feet deep in the water, leaving clearance of 12 inches to mud in the 40-foot channel. But though she's afloat, Panamax Star is mired in legal entanglements that keep her from the oceans she was built to cross just as surely as if she were hard aground.
In 46 years on the water, said Liang Hung Chu, her 69-year-old Taiwanese captain, he has never seen anything like it. He has not been home for nearly a year as he waited for his pay and transportation money. Twenty-one men from an original crew of 30 are with him still, standing lonely vigil. "We are all homesick," said Chu, "especially since we are not paid." "We are all homesick, especially since we are not paid." -- Capt. Liang Chu
The crewmen refuse to leave the ship, Chu said, because once gone they feel they would lose leverage to bargain for back pay.
Chu hopes a solution to the lengthy dilemma will come Monday, when the U.S. marshal's office auctions off the ship in Baltimore to pay off its debts. But he said Panamax Star is likely to bring significantly less at auction than owed, raising the question of where the crew's claims will stand in the priority list of who-gets-paid-how-much?
According to Donald Greenman, a lawyer in the case against Eddie Steamship Co., which operates Panamax Star, the crew in another recent case was paid transportation home and wages for the period up to the date of arrest of their ship, but no wages for the period from arrest to settlement.
Panamax Star crewmen, who Chu said earn from $300 a month to his salary of $2,200 a month, would lose 7 1/2 months pay under that formula.
But Greenman said the precedent used for the recent settlement may not be applicable. He said the long arrest time and the failure of numerous attempts to work out a settlement on Panamax Star make it a unique case.
Greenman represents International Marine Terminals, which has a $2 million claim for damages it alleges was done when Panamax Star struck a pier in New Orleans. Chu said Eddie also owes money to the crew, to a bunkery that provided oil for the ship to carry and to the bank that holds the mortgage on the ship.
Chu said he believes Eddie Steamship is bankrupt.
The crew has been living on subsistence-level payments from Eddie and from some of the claimants, said U.S. Marshal John W. Spurrier. He said Eddie "remains responsible, but it's very hard to get money, is my understanding."
A source close to the case said that whoever has a ship "arrested" is required to put a keeper aboard until settlement, "but in this case, with the low pay of this crew, I kind of think they thought it was cheaper to pay the crew than hire a keeper.
"Of course," he added, "then they didn't even pay them."
The crew members, who speak little English, maintain a schedule of jobs aboard ship, caring for the cargo, keeping the engines running and performing routine maintenance, Chu said. Every week or 10 days, they make a run into Annapolis in a small lifeboat to buy groceries.
Crewmen have been receiving $3 a day each for food, said Second Cook Dhaung Sein, who was in Annapolis today on one of the grocery runs. The men are worried about their families, he said. "They have to borrow money from someone back home . Some of the children cannot go to school," he said.
"The captain told us when the boat is sold Monday, maybe we get our wages, maybe not," said Sein. "We hope that someone in the U.S., the shipping master, the Congress, will help us."