“Go down!” yelled a knife-wielding crew member, forcing two Tanzanian stowaways overboard and onto the raft. As angry clouds gathered on the horizon, he cut the line.
Gambling on a better life, the stowaways had run out of luck. They had already spent nine days at sea, most of the time hiding in the Dona Liberta’s engine room, crouched deep in oily water. But as they climbed down onto the slick raft, the men, neither of whom knew how to swim, nearly slid into the ocean before lashing themselves together to the raft with a rope.
As the Dona Liberta slowly disappeared, David George Mndolwa, one of the abandoned pair, recalled thinking: “This is the end.”
Through debt or coercion, tens of thousands of workers, many of them children, are enslaved on boats every year, with only occasional interventions. On average, a large ship sinks every four days and between 2,000 and 6,000 seamen die annually, typically because of avoidable accidents linked to lax safety practices.
Ships intentionally dump more engine oil and sludge into the oceans in the span of three years than that spilled in the Deepwater Horizon and Exxon Valdez accidents combined, ocean researchers say, and emit huge amounts of certain air pollutants, far more than all the world’s cars. Commercial fishing, much of it illegal, has so efficiently plundered marine stocks that the world’s population of predatory fish has declined by two thirds.
The Dona Liberta has been among the most persistent of scofflaws, offering a case study of misconduct at sea, according to an examination of shipping, insurance and port records, and dozens of interviews with law enforcement, maritime experts and former company associates. The vessel not only cast off stowaways — Jocktan Francis Kobelo, the second man ordered onto the raft, died from the 2011 ordeal — but has also been accused of a long list of other offenses over the past decade.
As the rusty refrigerator ship moved across two oceans and five seas and among 20 ports, it routinely abused, cheated and abandoned its crew, caused an oil slick nearly 100 miles long, and drew citations from a half-dozen countries for other environmental violations. Creditors chased its owner for millions of dollars in unpaid debts, and maritime watchdog groups listed its parent company as an illegal fishing suspect. Still, the ship operated freely and never lacked for work or laborers.
“In the maritime world, it’s far easier for countries to look the other way with problem ships like the Dona Liberta than to do something about them,” said Mark Young, a retired United States Coast Guard commander and former chief of enforcement for the Pacific Ocean.
Vessels that disappear over the horizon tend to vanish not just from sight but from oversight, a New York Times investigation found. Countries have signed dozens of maritime pacts, the shipping industry has published reams of guidelines and the United Nations maritime agency has written hundreds of rules, all aimed at regulating ships, crews and safety. But those laws are also often weak, contradictory and easily skirted by criminals. National and international agencies usually have neither the inclination nor resources to enforce them.
The modern flagging system, which allows ships to buy the right to fly the flag of a country as long as it promises to follow its laws, provides good cover for the unscrupulous.
Usually, a ship may be stopped on the high seas only by a law enforcement or military vessel flying the same flag. The world’s navies, though, have been scaling down for decades. Most nations, including the Bahamas, whose flag the Dona Liberta flew, have no ships that regularly patrol beyond their national waters. (Some landlocked countries like Mongolia and Bolivia offer flags for cheaper costs.)
When wrongdoing occurs, no single agency within a country or specific international organization typically has a sufficient stake in the matter to pursue it. The stowaways on the Dona Liberta, for example, were undocumented immigrants from Tanzania, living in South Africa and brought to shore in Liberia. The ship was owned by a Greek company incorporated in Liberia, crewed primarily by Filipinos, captained by an Italian, flagged to the Bahamas and passing through international waters. “Who leads such an investigation?” Mr. Young asked.
There is much at stake: A melting Arctic has expanded trade routes. Evolving technology has opened the deep seabed to new mining and drilling. Maritime rivalry and piracy have led to more violent clashes. And, with an ever more borderless economy, sea commerce is vital to many countries. “Without ships, half of the world would freeze and the other half would starve,” Rose George, a British nautical writer, said.
In recent months, the United States has said that it intends to take a bigger role in high seas governance. “We ignore the oceans at our peril,” said Secretary of State John Kerry, who has pushed for more marine conservation globally and in May brokered a landmark dealwith Russia to regulate trawling in Arctic waters.
Mr. Young pressed for urgent action. Asked to describe the world’s oceans today, he said: “Like the Wild West. Weak rules, few sheriffs, lots of outlaws.”
‘THE GROUND SWALLOWS YOU’
As the storm set in, 20-foot swells seesawed the 7-by-8-foot raft. To avoid flipping over, the two Tanzanian stowaways splayed flat on their backs. Their hands chafed from grasping a piece of rebar poking up from one of the rusty blue drums.
Weather is more punishing on the open water because it comes from above and below. Mr. Mndolwa compared it to experiencing an earthquake and a hurricane at the same time. For eight pitch-black hours, the men stared upward in a driving rain, keeping their mouths closed because waves kept washing over them and squinting because shutting their eyes intensified the seasickness.
Mr. Kobelo had stowed away on ships three times before in search of work wherever he landed, according to his brother, Michael. He went to Angola, Senegal and then Singapore, where he spent a year as a night watchman and firefighter in a small dry dock. Though he could have faced prosecution, most countries do not bother to charge stowaways. Immigration authorities eventually sent him back to Tanzania.
To Mr. Mndolwa, who is barely literate and had never before left Africa, Mr. Kobelo’s descriptions of his time in Singapore — free hospital visits, restaurant meals, beaches where the police never shooed him away — sounded far better than his life in Cape Town. By day, the two men roamed the sidewalks near South Africa’s Table Bay, selling knockoff watches and soccer jerseys. By night, they slept in a makeshift lean-to under a bridge.
For those seeking escape, few routes are as perilous as the sea. Roughly 2,000 stowaways are caught each year hiding on ships. Hundreds of thousands more are sea migrants, whose journey involves some level of complicity from the ship’s crew. In interviews, these travelers compared the experience of stowing away at sea to hiding in the trunk of a car for an undetermined length of time, going to an unknown place across the most brutal of terrains. Temperatures are extreme. It is impossible to bring enough food or water. And if you try to flee en route, one former stowaway in Durban, South Africa, said, “the ground swallows you whole.”
To get on board, some stowaways pose as stevedores or deck cleaners. Others swim under the stern and squeeze through a space where the rudder meets the ship. Many scale the side, helped by “stowaway poles”: long bamboo sticks with toeholds and a hook. “Love boats,” which are common in ports and deliver prostitutes, drugs and alcohol to large ships, sometimes also bring uninvited passengers. After sneaking on board, they hide in hulls or shipping containers, crane cabs or tool trunks.
But concealed corners that might look inviting often turn deadly once ships set sail. Refrigerated fishing holds become cold, exhaust pipes heat up, shipping containers are sealed and fumigated. Maritime newsletters and shipping insurance reports offer a macabre accounting of the victims: “Crushed in the chain locker,” “asphyxiated by bunker fumes,” “found under a retracted anchor.” Most often, though, death comes slower. Vomiting from seasickness leads to dehydration. People pass out from exhaustion. They starve.
In May 2011, Mr. Mndolwa and Mr. Kobelo got their chance at a new life. They overheard a deckhand in port mention that the red-bottomed ship waiting dockside with no night watchman was leaving soon for England. Carrying their passports, a loaf of bread and a plastic bag filled with orange juice, the men shimmied across the ship’s mooring rope that night, crept down to the engine room, and stayed there, whisperingly still, for the next five days.
But their hiding spot soon proved unbearable. The turbines left their ears ringing. The fumes made them lightheaded. The heat “stole our breath,” Mr. Mndolwa recounted. Within two days their food ran out. Creeping through the mazelike lower levels of the ship up to the deck, they found crackers and bottled water in an enclosed lifeboat. They were discovered there four days later. Locked in a room below deck, they waited while the captain and crew determined their fate.
SMOKE AND FIRE
Though small, Greece is a superpower in the maritime world, with many shipping lines and a disproportionate number of the wealthiest shipowners. Nearly half of the best known shipping families hail from Chios, a tiny Greek island five miles off the coast of Turkey that was long prized by successive empires and nations.
Proud of its nautical pedigree, Chios claims as native sons (not without dispute) two great men of the sea — Homer and Christopher Columbus. It is also home to George Kallimasias, whose family has been in shipping for three generations. By most accounts, he runs Commercial S.A., which operated the Dona Liberta and a fleet of about two dozen similar ships.
Even in a struggling economy, Greece’s shipping magnates benefit from favorable government treatment, including an exemption for shipping firms from certain taxes. Shipowners control most of the country’s major oil companies, soccer teams and television stations, and played a major role in bailing out its banks in recent years.
The nation’s major shipping families also have a reputation for noblesse oblige — many of the island’s soccer fields, schools and hospitals bear plaques with their names. Mr. Kallimasias, though, is decidedly invisible.
“He is nothing like the others,” said a dockworker at the Chios marina. He pointed to Mr. Kallimasias’s 107-foot yacht, Something Wild, which the worker said is always guarded and rarely used. Mr. Kallimasias’s seaside house in Chios sits behind a 15-foot wall. When he drives around, he is typically accompanied by bodyguards, according to a former employee and associates in Athens.
“The guy is smoke,” said Lefteris Kormalos, a ship engine parts dealer. Last year, Mr. Kormalos won a court decision for $30,000 in unpaid debts from Mr. Kallimasias, who is named in at least 15 similar lawsuits in Greek or American courts. Legal documents variously describe him as owner, consultant or managing director of Commercial S.A., another business called Fairport Shipping and the Dona Liberta.
Built in Japan in 1991, the Dona Liberta was operated or owned by several British and Japanese companies before Commercial S.A. acquired it in 2004. It had variously been named the Emerald Reefer, the Sanwa Hope and the Sun An. Over the years it has flown the flags of Panama, the Bahamas and Kiribati, a tiny island nation in the Central Pacific.
A slow, powerful workhorse, the steel-hulled vessel has more than 20,000 cubic feet of refrigeration space, enough to carry the equivalent of more than 25 million cans of tuna, the Dona Liberta’s main cargo.
Known more commonly as “reefers,” this type of refrigeration ship is a dying breed that has been squeezed out of the business of transporting fruits and vegetables by container ships that are more than three times their size and have superior temperature-control technology. To survive, many reefers have shifted in recent years to moving fish, much of it illegal, and other contraband like counterfeit cigarettes and drugs, according to maritime insurance officials.
Mr. Kallimasias did not respond to interview requests. A clerk at the office of Commercial S.A. and Fairport Shipping in Athens shouted at a reporter through a front-gate intercom that it was inappropriate to have visited there, a point reiterated later in an email from Fairport’s lawyer, Alexandros Papalamprou.
In the 1980s, when one of Mr. Kallimasias’s companies failed to repay a loan of more than $11 million to the National Bank of Greece, members of the Greek Parliament investigated. They found one ship of his worth seizing, but it caught fire at sea and sank, in what was believed to be a deliberate act to collect insurance on it, according to legal documents provided to The Times by a Parliament member.
Dinos Anargyrou, a former Kallimasias supplier and litigant, recounted how the courts were unable to seize Mr. Kallimasias’ assets in 2013 for another unpaid debt. At the last minute, his company moved its corporate address from a two-story luxury building in an upscale section of Athens to a 100-square-foot vacant apartment in an aging downtown high-rise.
SCROUNGING FOR FOOD
In whispered phone calls or surreptitious notes, crew members from the Dona Liberta regularly contacted the international seafarers’ union, pleading for help. They described safety violations, harsh conditions, wage theft and abandonment, union records show.
By 2012, the mistreatment led the union to warn mariners against working for the Dona Liberta and other ships owned by Commercial S.A., according to union officials based in London.
“Lack of winter jackets, hard hats and safety shoes,” one union inspector wrote, describing crew members working outside in Norway in November. In Spain and South Africa, the crew complained that the captain routinely doctored the log books to show wages that were never paid and ship repairs that never occurred.
“When your contract is over, they send you home, saying they’ve transferred the money,” Yuriy Cheng, a Ukrainian, wrote in an undated post in Russian on a mariners’ online forum about the Dona Liberta’s owner. “You get home, and there is nothing there.”
Mr. Cheng described a standoff on his ship between management and the mostly Filipino crew members, who stopped work after a year of not being paid despite threats that they would be jailed if they failed to deliver the cargo. “These guys are 40 or 50 years old,” he wrote, “and they were crying like babies out of frustration.”
In June 2011, George Cristof, a veteran sailor, knew something was wrong from the moment he stepped on board the Dona Liberta in the Port of Truro, England. Hired by a maritime employment agency in Galati, Romania, he had been instructed in a brief call with Mr. Kallimasias’s shipping company to fly immediately to England because a full crew was waiting, ready to launch.
But when he arrived, Mr. Cristof found the situation far different, he recalled in an interview. The provisions were gone, the cargo hold empty, the crew departed. The Dona Liberta had barely enough fuel to power the wheel room’s overhead lamp, much less run the ship’s 5,600-horsepower engine.
Mr. Cristof was soon joined by another Romanian, Florin Raducan, and for the next several months the two men survived by fishing over the side and begging for canned goods and bottled water from passing ships. Some days they did not eat. They lacked the money and documents needed to disembark and return home. Their phone cards were drained, their cigarettes were all but gone. The men had no heat, running water, functioning toilets or electricity. They collected rainwater to clean themselves.
“It wasn’t enough,” Mr. Cristof recounted. He soon developed a severe fungal infection on his chest, his medical records show.
Each day the men waited for orders that never came. “Jail with a salary,” Mr. Cristof said, reciting a common expression about work at sea. “Except the salary isn’t guaranteed.”
More than 2,300 seafarers have been similarly stranded by their employers over the last decade, United Nations data shows. A ship’s cargo is often better protected than its crew. The industry only recently imposed rules, taking effect in 2017, mandating that shipowners carry insurance or show other proof that they can cover the costs of sailors marooned in port, as well as seafarers’ death and long-term disability entitlements.
In England, an aid organization came to the rescue of the two Romanians. “They did not want to stay but they refused to leave,” Ben Bailey, project manager of the group, Mission to Seafarers, said of the men’s predicament. Each sailor had paid more than $1,000 to the employment agency to get the job on the Dona Liberta, he said. Abandoning the ship forfeited any chance of recouping that money or collecting the wages promised to them.
After five months, though, Mr. Cristof and Mr. Raducan gave up. They flew back to Romania. For Mr. Cristof, the breaking point had come when he learned his children could no longer afford school. For Mr. Raducan: finding out that his wife had resorted to begging in public.
Few crimes are tougher to investigate than those that occur at sea. There are no cameras on the corner, no phones to tap, usually no weapons to retrieve. Crew members are often changed mid-voyage, so witnesses are scarce. “The crime scene is moving,” explained Mr. Young, the former Coast Guard official who is now senior officer of conservation enforcement at the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Complicating matters is what industry officials call the “maritime merry-go-round.” Asked about investigating the Dona Liberta’s possible crimes on the high seas, a United States Coast Guard official said it was not its jurisdiction. “Try Interpol,” he suggested. The authorities there said that its role was mostly to pass information between countries.
Officials at the International Maritime Organization, a United Nations agency, said that the country whose flag the vessel flies is supposed to investigate any allegations. An official at the Bahamas flag registry program said that any inquiry by his office would be referred to the I.M.O.
Early one morning in April 2012, the three-person staff at SkyTruth, an environmental watchdog group based in West Virginia, huddled over satellite footage sent from the European Space Agency. Their attention was quickly drawn to a half-dozen black slashes — what looked to them like intentional dumping from ships — in waters off the coast of Africa.
The longest gash in the ocean imagery stretched about 92 miles from Cabinda, Angola. On the leading edge of the slick, the Dona Liberta was headed northwest.
Ships have several options for handling the large amount of oily wastewater and fuel sludge that their engines produce during voyages. They can incinerate it on board, pay to unload it at a waste depot or — cheapest of all — use a “magic pipe,” a jury-rigged hose that illegally pumps the waste directly overboard or underwater.
That episode of dumping was not an isolated event. In February 2012, British environmental authorities had to clean up a slick caused by the Dona Liberta in the River Fal. Eight months before that, the ship was cited by Russian inspectors for having doctored its oil logbooks, a telltale sign of illegal dumping at sea. The Dona Liberta was cited for the same offense by Spanish inspectors in July 2009, Dutch inspectors in 2005, and British inspectors in 2004.
Most of these citations did not result in fines, most likely because few countries beyond the United States and Britain consistently prosecute such violations.
This time, no investigation was even opened. When other environmental groups alerted United Nations maritime officials, Interpol and the United States Coast Guard about the oil slick, officials said they had no jurisdiction. “Of the few people watching, even fewer do anything to stop it,” said John Hocevar, the oceans director at Greenpeace.
Stowaways have long been forced to walk the plank, subjected to the rough justice of the oceans. Though often victimized, they are also trespassers, usually desperate, occasionally dangerous, but by no means a new problem in the maritime world.
More humane captains put stowaways to work before dropping them off at the next port. But in recent years, European immigration laws have tightened, terrorism fears have grown and port authorities around the world have responded by raising the penalties for ships arriving with people not listed on the manifest.
The rules on land, though, often conflict with the realities at sea. Captains are prohibited from jettisoning stowaways, but they are blocked or fined if they bring them to shore. Nations have generally shifted the responsibility of handling stowaways onto the shipping industry, putting pressure on shipowners, captains and crew, said Paloma Maquet, an expert on stowaways based at Université de Poitiers in France. Captains sometimes tell their deckhands: “Make the problem go away.”
In 2014, two Guinean stowaways, one of whom soon drowned, were pushed or leapt overboard off the French coast after several African countries would not let them disembark, according to media accounts and human rights advocates. Police investigators said the fees were a factor in the episode. Two years earlier, a crew threw four African stowaways into the Mediterranean (all survived) after the captain was told the costs of repatriation. These expenses can run to $50,000 per stowaway, or double that if cargo delays are involved.
On their raft in the Atlantic Ocean, Mr. Mndolwa and Mr. Kobelo woke up the morning after the storm to an azure sky. They sat up, untied themselves, and began passing the time talking about soccer and their families. Malnourishment, dehydration and the frigid ocean spray had sapped them. By sunset, panic set in as the temperature began falling.
“Words dried up,” Mr. Mndolwa explained. He began saying the Lord’s Prayer, first in his head, then aloud. Mr. Kobelo joined in until he began coughing, and vomiting blood.
Hope soon appeared as a speck on the horizon. A 10-foot wooden boat with a loud outboard motor was approaching. “Why are you there?” a fisherman yelled in broken English as he tossed a rope to the raft. “I don’t know,” Mr. Mndolwa replied.
A half-day later, the stowaways arrived at a fishing pier several miles outside the port city of Buchanan, Liberia, where they were soon detained for being undocumented. “Why do you put us in jail and let the crew go?” Mr. Mndolwa recalled asking a Liberian immigration official. “The authorities deal with crimes on land, not on the water,” he said the official responded.
Six days after reaching land, Mr. Kobelo, whose coughing had grown worse, died. He was 26. Sitting in a one-room house in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, his brother, Michael, 37, said he blamed the Dona Liberta for the death.
His brother broke the law by stowing away, he conceded. “But even here in Tanzania we are told if you catch a thief, you don’t beat him,” he said. “You don’t throw him into the sea.”
The Dona Liberta arrived in the Port of Truro, near the southwestern tip of England, in June 2011, about a month after the stowaways were set adrift. The British police, apparently alerted by Liberian officials, boarded the ship and interviewed the captain. They later closed the investigation for lack of evidence, according to port officials. (They cited privacy reasons in declining to release the names of the Dona Liberta’s captain or crew, as had Liberian port and immigration officials, who also refused to be interviewed.)
Capt. Mark Killingback, the harbor master for the Port of Truro, said that it was clear from its weatherworn appearance that the Dona Liberta had fallen on hard times. He added that his office had received several requests from foreign creditors to detain the ship.
After his arrest, Mr. Mndolwa remained in his cell for five months before being flown to Tanzania, and eventually returned to Cape Town. Now 27, he lives near the same bridge as he did before boarding the Dona Liberta. The encampment, which includes other stowaways, is a dangerous spot. (A Times videographer was robbed there at knifepoint and beaten.)
On a portside slope strewn with trash and excrement, Mr. Mndolwa’s thatch and stick lean-to contains a soiled blanket and dozens of losing lottery tickets, dangling like a mobile. One recent day he tried to sell a couple packs of gum and some hair braids to drivers waiting at a nearby stoplight, later bartering his faux-leather belt for shoelaces from another homeless man.
He will try to stow away again, he said. “I just believe the ship is going to change my life.”
A NEW NAME
For much of last year, the Dona Liberta disappeared after turning off its location transponder. Though illegal under most conditions for large ships, disconnecting the device is easy and especially common on vessels carrying contraband.
Then in November, the rusty reefer reappeared in the Gulf of Thailand. When approached by a reporter eight miles off the coast, the Chinese captain explained that his ship had a new owner — a Chinese company — and a new flag — Kiribati. The ship’s new name, Sea Pearl, was painted on its forward hull, alongside a shadow of its old one. (The ship has since changed its flag, again, to Vanuatu.)
Asked about the ship’s past misdeeds, the captain demurred. “Different company, different company,” he said.