Gulf Sky: The story of the ship that went missing from the UAE and found in Iran
In July 2020, the oil tanker Gulf Sky disappeared in the sea near the United Arab Emirates. There was no news of his crew either.
Several days later it surfaced in Iran. Now it is suspected that it is acting like a ‘ghost ship’ and through this Iran is exporting oil in violation of sanctions.
For the first time, eight of its crew have spoken to the BBC. All of them, except the captain, have requested anonymity.
It was getting dusk off the coast of United Arab Emirates. Captain Joginder Singh was waiting.
His ship was anchored at Gulf Sky. There was a legal battle going on between its current and former owner.
When Captain Singh was entrusted with its command, he was assured that soon this ship would be on the journey again.
Waiting for days turned into weeks and then months. There was a shortage of food and drink for all the Indian sailors in the crew, the internet started getting cut off.
It was a time of pandemic. The crew was not even allowed to enter the Arab Emirates.
Things became more difficult for the crew when their salaries also stopped coming from April.
That day, on July 5, Captain Singh was waiting for a new beginning. The shipowners called the crew to survey the tanker so that it could be employed for a new job.
When a small boat was seen moving towards the ship in the dark, the captain got the gangway down and made preparations to meet them.
The captain says that initially everything seemed normal. There were seven people in that team who had documents in their hands. He inspected the ship.
After surveying for an hour, the group’s chief asked all 28 crew members to assemble at the ship’s mess. He was a friendly person of about 60 years.
The survey chief said the ship would be converted into an oil storage container. He also offered the crew a job with additional pay, but only two crew members agreed.
By now it was midnight. Captain Singh asked his crew to go to sleep, but suddenly three men dressed in black and with rifles in their hands entered the hall and asked everyone to lie down on the floor.
“We don’t want to hurt you, but we won’t hesitate if necessary,” said the head of the survey team.
He said, “The US stole this ship and now we are getting it back.”
You are alive at our mercy’
“Initially we thought he was a pirate but he was very professional and he knew very well what he was doing,” says a sailor.
The hijackers soon tied the hands of the crew members and snatched whatever was in their pockets, according to the sailors.
When some crew members pleaded for their lives, they were kicked in their stomachs.
About an hour later, the sailors recall, the ship’s anchor was lifted and its engine was started. This ship was now on the way.
After lifting anchor from Khor Fattan, the Gulf Sky continued for 12 hours. When the ship stopped, the crew members’ hands were untied and taken to another room. It is called officers mess. Here the windows were closed with cardboard.
According to crew members, he was kept under the watch of guards who spoke Arabic for several days. When he was allowed out of the room several days later and allowed to cook, he saw new people on the ship.
According to the crew member, he found a person in the kitchen who told that he was from Azerbaijan. Some say that they heard people on the ship talking in Persian.
Several crew members say that for a few days there was another 60-year-old man on the ship who also ate with them at the mess. He didn’t talk to anyone, it was as if he was managing things on the ship.
According to another sailor, the man had a gun, but he never intimidated anyone.
According to a member of the crew, once the person said, ‘We have no complaint against you guys. We had paid the money and now our money has stopped coming. This is not our fault.’
“The problem is that no country wants to take you, even your own country is not accepting you. You are now alive at our mercy.
Days were passing and the fear of the crew members was increasing.
“At times we thought that he would kill us and we would never see our family again.”
The crew members were told to remain silent, but they used to chat with the ship’s guards to pass the time.
Recalling one such conversation, a sailor says, “I know you are a very nice man and you live with the crew. But if you do something wrong, I will do what I have been ordered to do.
“I like you and so I can give you the option to decide how you want to die.” I can slit your throat or shoot you in the head.”
It was a very dangerous situation.
Fortunately, the time did not come before the crew members to make this choice.
In the early hours of July 14, the guards brought the crew to the deck. The sailors immediately recognized the flashing artificial lights on the shore. This was the city of Bandar Abbas in southern Iran.
The crew were blindfolded and their hands tied. He was put on a wooden boat. Earlier, he had seen the putty soot in the name of Gulf Sky.
These people say that after reaching the shore, they were taken to an airfield. He was in a military plane when his blindfolds were removed. This plane took them to Tehran.
From here he was taken in a bus and taken to Imam Khamenei Airport. According to the crew, three men boarded their bus who introduced themselves as Indian embassy officials and asked who you are and what you are doing in Iran.
Captain Singh told these people about hijacking. The crew members recall that these three men were stunned upon hearing this.
The officials told the crew members that tickets had been arranged for them to go home. Except two, all were given their passports. His passport had to be renewed.
These two men left with the officers while the rest of the sailors were put on the flight. It was a normal civilian flight. These sailors traveled by sitting with common passengers.
These sailors reached Delhi on 15 July. Both the sailors left behind reached India on 22 July.
The Indian authorities kept them in hotels for security reasons before being sent home.
One sailor told the BBC: “We were told we couldn’t leave the hotel because people on board could find us.”
‘Everyone knew it was an Iranian ship’
It has been more than a year since this incident happened. The crew members of the ship still do not understand why this ship was hijacked.
These employees claim that their salaries of about two lakh dollars have not been paid since the time the ship was grounded in the UAE.
David Hammond of the British organization Human Rights at Sea says, “Sailors are at the bottom of this chain. They should have basic human rights and labor rights under existing international law, but effectively implementing international law is a challenge.
When the ship was hijacked, it was under the flag of the Commonwealth of Dominica. Dominica says that he is trying to get the outstanding salary of the sailors. Seven Seas Navigation, the company that hired these sailors, also says that it is busy in getting their salary.
The question is also what will happen to the Gulf sky. It is not yet clear where the ship is or what it is being used for.
But the limited information we have about it gives clues as to why it was abducted.
Records show that the ship’s transponders remained closed for several weeks after the hijack. When its transponders were turned on in August 2020, it was in the Persian Gulf.
Now this ship has been named Rima and it is traveling with the flag of Iran instead of Dominica. This means that now the law of Iran is applicable on this ship.
Now its ownership has also changed and it is owned by a mining company based in Tehran – the name of this company is MTS or Moshtag Tijarat Sanat.
In August 2020, the ship sailed in the Persian Gulf and was 60 km south of Bandar Bushahr when its transponder was stopped. It is the main port city of Iran.
Michael Bockman, a member of Lloyd’s List Intelligence, says he thinks the ship is still active in the Persian Gulf and is part of Iran’s Ghost Fleet.
They believe that Iran is transporting oil around the world by violating sanctions through this ship.
Bockman told the BBC, ‘Its transponder is closed, which means that now it has become a mother ship. Crude oil is being filled in it and crude oil is being transported between other ships. If it comes outside the waters of Iran, then it will be recognized. Everyone knows it is now an Iranian ship.
However, even before being hijacked, American officials believed that the ship was related to Iran.
Its then owner Taif Mining Services (TMS) bought it from a Greek company in the year 2019. But after the ship was handed over, the US confiscated all the money raised from its purchase.
The US Department of Justice has filed a lawsuit against two Iranian nationals for purchasing a ship for the Iranian government on behalf of TMC. This is a violation of US sanctions on Iran.
One of these Iranian nationals, Amir Dianat, is the director of MTS. MTS is the new owner of the ship since the hijacking episode.
We sought a response from TMS and MTS, but no one has responded.
‘I don’t feel safe anywhere anymore’
Speaking to the BBC, the sailors of the Gulf Sky said that they have become victims of forces that are beyond their control.
There are still many questions which flash in his mind. How could his ship go out of UAE so easily, why did Iran give him a safe haven. Was he involved in the hijacking if the then owner company TMS had called the survey team?
Seven Seas Navigation has questioned why it took so long for the UAE to report the ship’s disappearance.
Director Sheikh Shakeel Ahmed says that he lost contact with the sailors the same night and informed the port authorities the next day.
According to exchanges seen by the BBC, several days after the hijack, they were told by port officials that the ship was still at anchor. Three days later, the United Arab Emirates filed a missing report on the ship.
Captain Abdullah Al Hayas, the head of the UAE’s Department of Maritime Transport Affairs, says this is not evidence that his country was also involved.
They say that when the ship went missing from the port administration’s radar, the documents were not checked to find it.
Sailors have their own questions, but not everyone trusts their story.
They feel that these sailors can also be a part of the whole episode.
Captain Abdullah says, “We are happy that he has reached his home, but there are many questions that are yet to be answered.”
There is also a concern that how this ship could travel so fast after the alleged hijack. It usually takes a long time to lift the anchor of such a large ship and start the engine.
“The engine of the ship also broke down and it had not been officially repaired for several months,” says Shakeel.
They believe that any hijackers would have needed the help of crew members to start this ship. The engine would have been kept ready in advance and it would have been tested whether this ship would be able to reach Iran or not.
Crew members who spoke to the BBC say they did not help the hijackers.
Says a sailor, “It’s shameful. The man whose mind is right will not make such allegations against us. If we were involved and Iran has given us money then why are we fighting for our salary today.
Where the glyph sky is is not known and its former owner has been reluctant to answer. In such a situation, the sailors say that they do not think that they will be able to achieve anything concrete.
The sailors the BBC spoke to have now returned to work. These people are working on ships in different parts of the world. But taking this decision has not been easy for them.
Captain Singh says, “I am worried. Now I don’t feel safe anywhere. But I have no other way to feed my children. This is the only job that comes to me.