On 16 July, crew members of the crude oil tanker spoke exclusively to SAS to disclose that unknown assailants acting as ‘pirates’ held the 28 crew at gunpoint and forced them to sail from its anchorage in Khor Fakkan, United Arab Emirates, to Iran. They sailed on 6 July 2020 and remained at Iran until 14 July.
All of the crew members are now safe; however, only 26 of them have returned home. The crew members, who spoke anonymously to SAS, detailed a strange series of events that led to their alleged kidnapping and release.
The Commonwealth of Dominica Maritime Administration alerted US authorities that the vessel was missing on 13 July. The vessel had been under arrest by a UAE admiralty law injunction, and its disappearance sparked speculation over the cause of the disappearance and fate of its crew, with some suggestions that the crew had masterminded an escape. However, crew members contacted SAS on 16 July to state that the vessel was boarded by heavily armed assailants, who forced them to sail. Photos sent by the seafarers show marks where their wrists were allegedly bound.
HRAS listed the manning agency as Seven Seas Navigation India (RPSL: MUM079). According to the crew, a port agent from the agency emailed the Gulf Sky captain on 4 July, stating that surveyors would board the vessel at 1700 the next day. At 2300 on 5 July, a speedboat approached and six people boarded the vessel, stating that they were the surveyors ready to carry out the inspection as per the agent’s email.
A crew member told SAS that they were all called into the messroom at 2350, when the ‘surveyors’ revealed their true purpose and allegedly held the crew at gunpoint with handguns and AK47s and beat the captain. The assailants were then said to have tied the crew’s hands and locked them in the messroom. When the assailants failed to heave the anchor themselves, they purportedly took the bosun hostage to carry out the operation. On 6 July, at approximately 0100, the seafarer said that the vessel set sail from the Khor Fakkan anchorage.
On the morning of 7 July, the crew member told SAS that the anchor was dropped in Iranian waters, where it remained until 14 July. Crew gave accounts of being bound and tortured by the assailants. Examples of shouting and abuse were cited, as well as food restrictions and bathroom breaks being rationed.
Finally, on the evening of 14 July, a small boat came alongside and crew said they were blindfolded and forced onto the vessel by the ‘pirates’. The boat sailed for roughly 14 hours where they reached a beach and all boarded a bus that took them to the airport, where 26 crew members were handed tickets. They boarded a flight to their native country of India several hours later and arrived home the following day. The remaining two crew members were left behind as their passports had expired.
The crew member said they became “suspicious” because the manning agent on 4 July had apparently informed them of ‘surveyors’ boarding the vessel and, on 2 July, had instructed the chief engineer to prepare the engine. Furthermore, the ‘pirates’ not only handed over airline tickets to freedom, but, according to the crew member, spoke with immigration officers regarding the two seafarers whose passports had expired. Family members of the seafarers told SAS they had reached out to the agent and port harbour master in Khor Fakkan via email, who said they would send a pilot vessel to inspect Gulf Sky – when it was already missing from anchorage.
SAS has reached out to manning agent Seven Seas Navigation for comment.
The sudden re-appearance of the 26 Gulf Sky crew members in India on 15 July has left everyone baffled. HRAS worked jointly on the case with the Dominica Maritime Administration to repatriate the seafarers safely and get their wages repaid; both have declined to offer an official comment to SAS due to the sensitivity of the incident and ongoing investigations.
“Our initial concern was regarding the health and welfare of the crew. However, it is abundantly troubling that the crew is claiming that they were either coerced or forced to pick up anchor and get underway knowingly engaging in an act of piracy. Piracy, in any form cannot be tolerated and we believe that the crew will deliver the key from which this mystery is unlocked,” said Erik Dawicki, president and CEO of the Commonwealth of Dominica Maritime Administration, in a press statement.
Gulf Sky had been at anchor in the UAE since February 2020, under the UAE injunction for financial dues between current and previous ownership. It had also been given a prohibition to sail notice from the Dominican flag registry due to unpaid wages to crew. It should also be noted that the seafarers do not possess their continuous discharge certificates, which is still in the hands of the Khor Fakkan coastguard after the arrest of the vessel, according to crew family members.