By Tom Peters

It was an unsafe tug with a desperate and hungry crew that limped into Halifax on a cold December 18 to avoid a storm at sea, unsure of what was ahead of them. Because of their circumstances, they would not leave the port for over a month later and then be humbled and thankful for the outpouring of Canadian support in their time of need.

The Bolivian-registered Craig Trans, built in Florida in 1944, had been on route from the U.S. West Coast to Montreal to pick up a ship to tow back to Mexico. With the vessel heading into a winter storm, Capt. Milton Tabora Avila brought the tug into Halifax to ride out the weather. Maggie Whittingham-Lamont, seafarer co-ordinator at the Halifax Missions to Seafarers’ said the tug, owned by Vesta Shipping Lines, Inc., of Scotch Plains, New Jersey, was initially supposed to go to anchor in the harbour but the anchor chain was too short. “On the day they came in they had nothing. They didn’t even have coats. Richard (Velasquez) was first off when he saw me drive up with the Mission van because I brought them breakfast. He had a little white thin T-shirt. I remember looking at it because it was so cold that morning. I said you need your coat and he said we don’t have coats. They didn’t even know where they were going when we set out,” she said.

Transport Canada got involved and the condition of the vessel was dire. It was taking on water with accommodations and engine room being flooded. The drinking water was contaminated, said Halifax Mission’s Manager Helen Glenn and the food onboard, “was all moldy,” said Whittingham-Lamont. “When the owner (Gerard Antoine) came (to the mission), I said the rice is all full of cockroaches. He became a chemist at that point and said it was quite fine to eat food with cockroaches in it,” she said.

Transport Canada inspected the vessel and found over 50 violations related to pollution, maintenance and crew training. The owner was told the ship would not leave Halifax until those violations were resolved. As of March 12, the ship was still in Halifax. The eight crew, one from Guatemala and seven from Honduras, wanted to return home, but had no money and the owner refused to pay their airfare.

The plight of the stranded crew went to media and, as they say in the technological world, their story went viral. The crew spent their days at the Mission and the support began to roll in. “A lot of the port companies like Transport Canada and Canada Border Services Agency staff members kept popping in with blankets, toques, coats and all kinds of things and food to help them. Our resources are limited and they were literally eating every meal here,” said Glenn. The local public also came by with food, money and clothes.

The Mission attempted to get assistance from the embassies in Bolivia, El Salvador and Honduras to get the men home, but to no avail. As media stories continued, people from all walks of life across the country donated 330,000 Aeroplan points to send the men home. Among the donors was a family in Alberta that was willing to give up its vacation and donate its points and an older lady from Ingonish, Cape Breton who donated over 87,000 points.

Then there was the money. Close to $20,000 was donated, said Glenn, including a $3,000 donation from a doctor/professor in Montreal. The cash paid off the taxes on the tickets and each crew member was given a sum of money to pay expenses encountered on the way home and to compensate them for lost wages. The men from Honduras were also concerned for their children’s education. In Honduras, school fees have to be paid up front when registering for school and kids can lose the whole year when the fees cannot be paid on time. The men didn’t have the funds. “An agent at Atship Services lobbied the community for educational funds,” said Glenn. The agent collected $3,200, and each child of the crew received $200.

The Craig Trans crew left Halifax for home on January 21. “totally overwhelmed that people would do this,” said Whittingham-Lamont, who added the condition of the vessel and what happened to the crew was “probably one of the worst cases,” she has seen. “They were humble, grateful and thankful throughout that whole month. They were fantastic men,” added Glenn. In the meantime, before the vessel can leave Halifax, in addition to the expenses involved in correcting the ship’s problems, the owner must pay the port mooring dues, the cost of extracting several thousand litres of waste oil and security costs.