The Panamax Star lurched to life today, bringing a little early Christmas cheer to some homesick sailors.
About 3:43 p.m., her six-ton anchor was hoisted from the muddy Chesapeake floor and she lumbered off, laden with 54,000 metric tons of coal, on a six-hour sea trial. If all goes well, she should be headed home to Taiwan by the weekend, ending a legal nightmare that left 24 sailors and their 69-year-old skipper nearly penniless in foreign waters for nine months.
"It was a terrible privation those crew members underwent," said U.S. Marshal John Spurrier, whose Baltimore office oversaw the sale of the Panamax Star at auction six weeks ago. "It was a unique situation I've never seen before, when the seamen were abandoned by the owner."
The Bank of Tokyo bought the ship Oct. 26 for $1.25 million, paving the way for the crew to be paid, some for the first time since January.
Marshals had "arrested" the 796-foot ship March 7 for nonpayment of debts and moved her to anchorage seven miles off Annapolis to await settlement by the owner, Eddie Steamship Co. Until the auction, she stayed put, locked in a legal morass that left her crew with $3 apiece a day for food, worrying about their families in Taiwan and Burma.
"The homesickness made them crazy," said Capt. Liang Hung Chu.
Today, Panamax Star was buzzing with activity as mechanics from Baltimore worked to get the steam engine going and the crew pondered its late-arriving good fortune.
"Everyone is waiting for the sailing date," said second cook Thaung Sein of Rangoon, Burma, whose voyage on Panamax Star marks his first sea passage. "We want to leave very soon."
Sein, whose proficiency in English made him an unofficial spokesman for the crew during their stay, said crew members were awarded 66 percent of back pay under the auction sale agreement.
For him, that meant $800 for the nine-month wait, he said. Others were paid as much as $1,200, he said. No one was happy with the arrangement. "This is a very small amount of money," he said. "We would like to have it all, cent by cent. But we can't get it."
Sein figured that the trip to Taiwan should take about 45 days. But Chu said the ship may be slow because of the growth of barnacles she has accumulated over an idle summer, and the sea voyage could take 50 days.
While Chu said this would be the last trip of his seagoing career, Sein, 49, who has eight children, said he would ship out again. "I want to go around the world," he said, "but this time, I have to look for a nice company."