Crew stranded on cargo ship in Delaware River

 The Nikol H is a cargo ship that's been anchored in the Delaware for 16 weeks. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The Nikol H is a cargo ship that's been anchored in the Delaware for 16 weeks. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Twenty crew members have been living aboard a 700-foot cargo ship anchored in the middle of the Delaware River for four months, and they might be there for a while.

What started off as a simple cocoa bean delivery at Pier 84 in South Philly in April quickly became complicated for the Marshall Islands-based freighter.

First, the Nikol H failed to pass a routine maintenance test, so the ship was docked for a month during  repairs. Then the owner, Derna Carriers, stopped paying its dock fees. So the ship was placed under arrest.

Representing Bremer Landesbank, the mortgage holder of the ship, attorney Mary Elisa Reeves said the bank is watching the litigation closely.

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“Normally the owner will hire a lawyer, to come into court and represent the owner’s interest,” said Reeves. “But in this case, that has not happened yet. We understand that may be imminent but we don’t know that for sure.”

The crew has valid visas but cannot come ashore because a U.S.maritime law says foreign seafarers cannot stay in the country longer than one month.

The Rev. Bill Rex of the Seamen’s Church Institute speaks with the captain daily and visited the ship on Friday.

“The captain’s happy, the crew is doing their work, everything is as if this ship were at the dock,” said Rex.

He says the crew stays busy maintaining the ship, playing basketball, and singing karaoke.

“This is typical of what they do at sea,” said Rex. “You can’t get off, you can’t go ashore, you can’t do anything when you’re out in the middle of the Atlantic. These guys are used to finding ways to amuse themselves.”

The crew could apply for longer stays if the ship could find a dock, but that hasn’t been easy.

“Say you are a dock owner, and you know that court cases are pending in relation to suits over unpaid bills, are you going to be the first person to step up to the plate and say my dock is available?” said Rex.

Reeves said the chance of the current situation continuing for an extended time is unlikely.

“Hypothetically, and I’m not saying that this is what’s going to happen, what happens if an owner were to abandon the vessel, then the next step in the claim would be to file a motion to sell the vessel,” said Reeves.”But that hasn’t happened yet.”

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