Dozens of Cargo Ships (and a British Performance Artist) Are Still Stuck at Sea

There aren’t many winners in the saga of Hanjin, the South Korean shipping giant that filed for bankruptcy last month, leaving dozens of ships literally stranded at sea around the world. But you could make a case for Rebecca Moss, the British performance artist currently on a residency aboard the Hanjin Geneva, a ship originally bound from Vancouver to Shanghai, but currently bobbing off the coast of Japan without a destination. Moss, whose work, according to the Guardian,stems from putting herself in slapstick or surreal scenarios,” had intended with this project to explore “the comedic potential of the clash between mechanical systems and nature.” She has surely gotten herself a much better absurdist art piece out of the debacle.

The ship’s plight is now the subject of her piece, which she says has, “forcefully underscored the contradictions I always perceived about this endless stream of stuff that is constantly flowing across the Pacific.”

For most of the estimated 2,500 sailors stranded on Hanjin ships around the world—most of them from South Korea, the Philippines, and Indonesia—there’s no such silver lining. Some of the ships have been turned away by ports that are fearful their dockworkers won’t get paid. Others have been seized by authorities, with crews prevented from disembarking. When I wrote about Hanjin last week, I focused mostly on what the situation indicated for the future of the global shipping industry, in part because I assumed the immediate crisis would be resolved soon.

But as of this Wednesday, the Korean Thanksgiving holiday, 89 vessels are still stranded around the world carrying about $14 billion of cargo. The crew of one of those ships, the Hanjin Rome, currently off the coast of Singapore, seems to be wiling away the hours talking the media, with stories on the ship published in the Wall Street Journal and BBC this week. The ship has been seized by Hanjin creditors and a Singapore court has banned it from performing shipping operations or leaving the port. That means the men on board can’t disembark. They’re relatively lucky, getting regular deliveries of food and other supplies, something not available to compatriots stranded further offshore, but the crew seem understandably bored and despondent about their situation.

There are some signs of movement. A U.S. judge has issued a court order allowing some vessels to dock at U.S. ports without the risk of being seized by creditors. And three Hanjin ships have been sold off. But with the global shipping industry plagued by overcapacity, there’s not much incentive for Hanjin’s rivals to buy more ships, and with global commodity prices low, even scrapping them may not be profitable. So for many of the stranded crews, it could still be a long wait.