By Joshua Cheetham
In July 2020, the oil tanker Gulf Sky vanished from waters off the United Arab Emirates, along with its crew. Days later it turned up in Iran where it's now suspected to be working as a "ghost ship" – helping the regime ferry oil in breach of sanctions. For the first time, eight former crew have spoken to the BBC about the ship's disappearance, saying they were hijacked by a group of armed men. All but the captain have asked not to be named, out of fear for their safety and livelihoods.
As darkness drew in along the UAE coast, Captain Joginder Singh stood waiting.
His ship, the Gulf Sky, had been stuck at anchor while a legal battle took place between its current and former owners. When Capt Singh was brought in to take the helm, he says he was assured the ship would be sailing again soon.
But the weeks had turned to months. The all-Indian crew allege that food, fresh water and internet access were scarce, and with the pandemic in full swing, they were barred from travelling to the mainland. To make matters worse, the crew say that, from April, they stopped receiving their pay.
That evening, on 5 July, Capt Singh was hoping for a fresh start. The ship's owners had allegedly arranged for a group of surveyors to assess the tanker for a new role. When a small boat finally appeared from the dark, the weary officer says he ordered the gangway lowered and went to meet them.
All seemed normal at first, the captain says. A group of seven men in blue overalls, clipboards in hand, went with the crew to inspect the ship. After an hour their survey was done and the group's leader – a podgy, amiable man in his 60s, according to Capt Singh and others – asked the 28-man crew to gather in the mess.
The chief surveyor said the ship was going to be turned into an oil storage container, the captain and crew recall, and he asked who wanted to stay on board a few more months – for extra pay, of course. But when just two sailors said yes, the mood quickly soured.
By now it was almost midnight, so Capt Singh suggested everyone went to bed. But as he made for the door he says three men suddenly rushed into the room. Dressed in black and brandishing assault rifles, they screamed at everyone to get on the floor.
"We don't want to hurt you but we will if we have to," the chief surveyor said, according to the captain and several crew. "America has stolen this ship and we are taking it back."
"At first we thought they were pirates but they were very professional – they knew what they were doing," says one mariner.
The crew say that as they lay face down, their captors quickly bound everyone's hands and took everything from the sailors' pockets. Some crew began crying and begging for their lives, but they say their guards kicked them in the sides and told them to be quiet.
After about hour, the floor began to shake beneath them as the ship's engines were fired up and its anchor raised, the sailors recall.
Once the Gulf Sky began to move from its anchorage in Khor Fakkan, it didn't stop for another 12 hours, say the crew. When it finally did so, the men's hands were untied and they were moved into another room – the officer's mess – where the windows had been covered with cardboard.
Crew members say that, for days and days, they were kept under constant watch by guards who spoke Arabic to one another. When they were allowed out of the mess to use the nearby toilet or cook food in the ship's kitchen, several remember seeing new faces around the ship.
One person says he talked to a man he met in the kitchen who said he was from Azerbaijan. Others remember hearing voices around the ship speaking in Farsi. They believe a new crew had been brought in to run the ship in their place.
During their captivity, several mariners say they were briefly joined in the mess by another overweight man in his 60s, who didn't speak with the crew. "It looked like he was facilitating things," one crew member said. "He had a gun but he did not show any aggressiveness."
Others remember another captor: a bald, muscled man, also in his 60s, whom the other armed guards appeared to take their lead from. He did not give his name, but said he worked for the ship's owners.
"We do not have anything against you guys," one crew member recalls him saying. "We just want the ship. We had paid the money and the payment was stopped. It's not our fault."
"The problem is no country wants to take you, even your own country," he added. "You're completely at our mercy."
As the days dragged on, fear among the crew was growing.
"Sometimes we felt that maybe they were going to kill us," says one mariner. "We felt that we weren't going to see our families again."
Though they were told to stay quiet, to pass the time the crew would sometimes speak with the guards. There was one conversation a sailor remembers vividly.
"He said 'I see how you are with the rest of the crew and I see you are a very nice fellow, but if you do something bad, then I'll have to do what I'm told,'" he recalls.
"'Because I like you I can only give you the option of how you would like to die: I can cut your throat or give you a bullet in the head.'"
Luckily, the crew member never had to make that choice.
In the early hours of 14 July, the guards took the men on deck. Some crew immediately recognised the constellations of artificial lights dotted along a nearby shore. They say it was Bandar Abbas, a port city in southern Iran.
The group say they were offloaded onto a wooden boat, then blindfolded. But before their eyes were covered, some noticed that the Gulf Sky's name on the sides of the tanker had been painted over in black.
They report being taken ashore and travelling to an airfield. When their blindfolds were finally taken off, the crew noticed that they were on a plane – a military jet, they say – which transported them to Tehran.
From here they were shepherded on to a bus and eventually found themselves at the side of a road alongside Imam Khomeini International Airport.
According to the crew, three men then got on the bus. They said they were from the Indian embassy and demanded to know who everyone was and why they were in Iran.
Capt Singh told them of the hijacking, and the men seemed shocked at the news, crew members say. The officials said tickets had been arranged for everyone to fly home, the captain and crew recall, and the group were handed their passports and boarding passes – except for two sailors whose passports needed renewing.
The pair left with the Indian diplomats, while the rest of the mariners were escorted on to a regular commercial flight. They shared rows of seats with ordinary passengers, apparently oblivious to the crew's ordeal, several crew members say.
The sailors landed in New Delhi on 15 July, with their two compatriots following suit on 22 July. Before returning home, Indian officials put them up in a hotel room and told them to stay inside for their own safety.
"They said 'You can't go outside because it's a very dangerous situation. The guys on the vessel may find you,'" one seafarer told the BBC.
Today, more than a year after these dramatic events, the crew of the Gulf Sky are still searching for answers about how and why the alleged seizure of the vessel took place.
They are also battling for over $200,000 in back pay they say they're owed from the time the ship was held off the UAE.
"Seafarers are at the bottom of the chain," says David Hammond, chief executive of UK charity Human Rights at Sea, who first publicly reported the men's case. "They should have fundamental human and labour rights protections under existing international law, but the effective enforcement of international law is a constant challenge," he adds.
The Commonwealth of Dominica, the ship's flag state at the time of the alleged hijacking, says it is working to recover the crew's pay. So does the company that hired the crew, Seven Seas Navigation.
Questions also remain about the fate of the Gulf Sky itself. It's unclear where the ship is now – or what it's being used for. But what little we do know, points to why it was seized.
Records show its transponder was switched off for weeks after the alleged hijacking. In late August 2020, when it was first turned on, the vessel was floating off the coast of southern Iran.
It has since been renamed Rima and swapped its flag of convenience from Dominica to Iran – meaning it now falls under Iranian jurisdiction. It has also changed hands and is now owned by a Tehran-based mining company, Moshtag Tejarat Sanat (MTS).
In the final days of August 2020, the vessel sailed west around the Persian Gulf, and its transponder last went off on 30 August, 60km (37 miles) south of Bandar Bushehr – one of Iran's major port cities.
Michelle Bockmann, from Lloyds List Intelligence, believes the ship is still operating within the region and is now part of Iran's "ghost fleet" – helping to transport Iranian oil around the world, in breach of sanctions.
"The fact that it hasn't had its [locator] turned on probably means it's become what we call a 'mother ship' – storing crude [oil] and perhaps transferring it to and from other tankers," Ms Bockmann told the BBC. "If it comes out of Iranian waters it'll be marked," she adds. "Everyone knows it's an Iranian ship."
Even before the apparent hijacking, US authorities believe the ship already had ties to Iran.
Its owners at the time, Taif Mining Services (TMS), had bought the vessel in 2019 from a Greek company. But soon after the ship was delivered, nearly all funding from the sale was seized by the US.
The US justice department has since charged two Iranian nationals with using TMS as a front to buy the vessel on behalf of Iranian authorities, in violation of American sanctions against the country.
One of the nationals, Amir Dianat, is managing director of MTS – the ship's new owner since the alleged hijacking.
Neither TMS or MTS have responded to requests for comment.
In their conversations with the BBC, the Gulf Sky's former crew have described how they feel like victims of geopolitical forces beyond their control. And nagging questions linger for many of them.
How was their ship able to leave the UAE so easily, even though it was detained? Why did Iran give the ship safe harbour? If the ship's then-owners, TMS, had arranged for the surveyors to come onboard, were they involved in the alleged hijacking as well?
Seven Seas Navigation has questioned why it took the UAE so long to report the ship missing. Director Shaik Shakeel Ahmed says he lost contact with the crew on the night of the alleged hijacking, and he messaged harbour authorities to ask where they were.
In correspondence seen by the BBC, he was told that the Gulf Sky was still anchored the harbour – several days after the alleged hijacking. It would be another three days until UAE authorities registered the boat as missing.
Captain Abdulla Al-Hayyas, director of UAE's Maritime Transport Affairs department, insists that this isn't evidence of his country's involvement. Instead, he concedes that proper checks weren't carried out to find the ship after it vanished from harbour authorities' radar.
As to why the ship got away so easily, Capt Al-Hayyas says it's incredibly rare for a detained ship to try and escape. Any eloping vessel would simply be detained elsewhere, and those on board wouldn't be allowed to work anymore.
But while the sailors look for answers, some people aren't entirely convinced by their version of events. Others believe some seafarers may have been a part of the plot.
"We're happy that they've reached home and are safe, but there are a lot of questions," says Captain Abdulla Al-Hayyas.
One concern is how the ship was able to sail so quickly after the alleged hijacking. Usually, it would take a long time to prime a ship's engines and hoist up the anchor.
The ship's engine had also fallen into disrepair, says Mr Shakeel, and hadn't been officially inspected for months. He believes that any hijackers would have needed help from the crew – to prepare the engines beforehand, and to assess if Gulf Sky could make it safely to Iran.
Crew members who've spoken to the BBC have denied helping their captors.
"It's outrageous," said one sailor. "Someone with their brain in the right place wouldn't accuse us of that. If we were involved and paid by the Iranians, why are we fighting for our salaries?"
With the ship's whereabouts unknown, and its owners silent, the Gulf Sky's former crew say justice has become elusive.
For now, nearly all of those interviewed by the BBC are back at sea, working on ships around the world. But it's not been an easy decision.
"I'm worried, I don't feel safe anywhere, but how else can I feed my kids?" says Capt Singh. "It's the only job I know."
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By Joshua Cheetham