The following story was told to the American-Rattlesnake by a graduate of the Maritime College of the State University of New York, who has an unlimited master’s license and has been a sailor for over a decade. American-Rattlesnake has maintained their anonymity at their request.
Working as a merchant mariner, stowaway stories were not new to me. I got my own story to tell on a vessel carrying two Ethiopian refugees back to the USA. This is not going to be a tale of woe and sympathy for refugees. It is a tale of woe for America – the great nation that once offered freedom and opportunity has turned into one beset by our vulnerability – to all the tired and poor that looks to take advantage of our liberal generosity.
I was working on a vessel that arrived in Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa. This is a port where they load camels with a single lifting strap and crane onto livestock vessels. This gives you a good idea to how primitive the port is.
Djibouti does not treat its fellow Africans graciously. They are detained in a manner far worse than in any American detention center. The refugee camp is located just outside the port. After the stowaways were on board it was clear that no country wanted to take them. The French, who administer some of the port’s operations, were happy to be rid of this problem. Prior to departure, six people actually got onboard and were caught and taken off the ship. The number that were caught trying to climb the anchor chain and board the ship were countless. Think of rats fleeing a sinking ship, but in the reverse, and you’ll get the idea.
So we set sail and two more refugees were discovered within 24 hours of departure. Normal protocol would be to notify customs immediately and return to Djibouti. But as the luck of the refugees would have it, the captain was a Ted Kennedy fan and a big liberal from Massachusetts. So he stonewalled and delayed notification and continued sailing towards the Suez Canal. By the time the notification was made, we were at an anchorage awaiting canal transit. There are enormous fees involved with this and the option of returning to Djibouti had passed. To the Captain’s surprise, Egypt refused the landing of stowaways. We sailed through the canal with the stowaways detained on board. Upon arrival in Malta to receive fuel, landing of the stowaways was again refused . We were ordered to anchor our vessel as far out as possible, to ensure that the stowaways would not flee the vessel and swim ashore.
Our remote anchoring was not a problem for the stowaways, who both spoke broken English – they specifically look for British or American ships only. They told us that they were planning to get to California, where they had family to support them. Whether this family was there legally or not was not answered. One of the stowaways told us how he had stowed away before and was repatriated after six months of comfortable living in a detention center. He told us how, due to American humanitarian codes, he was treated very well as a stowaway and detainee. This latest attempt was worth it even if he was to get repatriated again. Even more indicative of how America is viewed, was his optimism in saying, “if I don’t get in this time, then next time!”
This humanitarian code is another item that speaks to how misguided America has become. The code states that the stowaways need to be fed and exercised. So they had to be taken for escorted walks on the vessel. I work a minimum of twelve hours a day and have broken sleep in between. If I told the Captain I would like to have a scheduled exercise period, I would be a laughing stock.
The Captain told me that after dinner I needed to bring dinner to the stowaways. I asked if I should give them the scraps from my plate. He replied that I should be ashamed of myself . They were just poor people who needed food. I replied that if leftovers are good enough for homeless US Veterans that pick out of garbage cans, it should be for the stowaways as well. But I am not one to defy a command, so I retrieved two steak dinners from the galley. As I served the stowaways their meals, they asked if I could also go fetch them some coffee with milk. I said that this was not Denny’s and slammed the door as I left.
Upon arrival to the USA, the ship was detained and boarded by the US Coast Guard and Customs. There was also a K-9 police unit with bomb-sniffing dogs. The entire crew was rounded up and held in the mess hall. We were prohibited from leaving the mess hall until a thorough search of the vessel was completed. The only crew not detained were those still on essential duty, such as those in the engine room, who were watched by military guard. No one was permitted to go to their berthing quarters, not even crew who had just finished their shift and needed sleep. When I needed to go to the bathroom, I had to be escorted by an armed guard. They waited outside the bathroom until I was finished and then escorted me back to the mess hall. The entire process of security sweeps, crew verification and interviews took several hours. During all this time the crew was huddled in the mess hall. Some crew members slept on the floor since they couldn’t access their beds. I wondered whose humanitarian code took into account our conditions of detainment. After the long security procedures were completed, cargo operations began with no allowance for the crew as to what they had just gone through. I had been up for 24 hours and was told to “turn to” as my shift was starting. Where was the humanitarian code for me and my fellow American workers?
As to the stowaways, perhaps they are gloating at their success and made their way to sunny California. As for the Captain, he was not fired. nor even reprimanded for his lax actions. He put the whole crew at risk and showed no regard for the consequences we would suffer to aid and abet two stowaways. This story could have ended very differently. It is not uncommon for stowaways to attack or even kill crew members that they feel are a threat to their easy passage to America. My guess is that the Captain is still living in his liberal fog as to the danger that stowaways pose. He is probably congratulating himself for helping some of the poor and huddled masses to liberation. I wonder if he saw the irony in all this as we were all stuck together, tired and huddled in the mess hall.