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Everything is related to Naples
Number 89 in this series. Link to all items here.

Odessa, the Forgotten Ship

I had hoped that the Odessa was still afloat and back in business somewhere, but I've just read this: "Laid up at Naples in the late 1990s, she was finally released and a large refit was undertaken but not completed before her owners mysteriously gave up and sold her for scrap." I do know that in 2006, two Neapolitan film directors, Leonardo Di Costanzo and Bruno Oliviero released a documentary about the ship's plight in the port of Naples. It took three years, but they finally got backing for the film from a French company after a number of Italian ones turned it down. The one-hour documentary was called, Odessa, la Nave dell'Oblio (literally, The Ship of Oblivion).

The docked and motionless Odessa in the port of Naples had become somewhat of a landmark but had become rustier and less seaworthy with each passing month and year she sat there. The Odessa was built in 1970-74 in Newcastle, UK. She was 136 meters long, did 19 knots and carried 550 passengers and 265 crew. The Odessa was once the proud flagship of the Soviet cruise fleet, and, indeed, I remember it coming into Naples on a number of occasions in the 1980s. At the time, Soviet tourists were an oddity in Naples. One time I went down to the port to meet Viktor, a trombone-player friend of mine on tour with the then Leningrad (now, St. Petersburg) Philharmonic. He walked up smiling and wearing a watch on each wrist. He had been waylaid by a dockside vendor, but he seemed content—and I'm sure the vendor was. (I heard later that both watches gave up the ghost halfway through the second movement of Shostakovitch's 5th symphony later that evening.) Anyway, Viktor had arrived on the good ship, Odessa

Time passed, and it seemed that the Odessa was simply just there all the time in the port. She had become a fixture. Then, I ferried out of the port on my way to Sorrento one morning, looked over at the usual place and she was gone. As it turned out, the ship had stayed for seven years. I had lost track of the time.

When the Soviet Union unraveled in 1991, 200 ships were taken over by the Black Sea Shipping Company (BLASCO) operating out of the port of Odessa in the Ukraine. By the spring of 1995, Blasco owed 300 million dollars to its creditors and was so far in debt that 24 of the company's ships were seized in ports around the world. At the demand of a German creditor, the Odessa was "arrested" (the term used in Admiralty law) on a cruise at Capri. There were 360 passengers on board at the time. They disembarked in Naples, and the ship was forbidden to set sail. (In such cases, port authorities carrying out the arrest physically board the ship and place a lock and chain around the wheel and post a warrant.) 

A war of attrition began between the creditors and the skeleton crew left on board, commanded by Captain Vladimir Lobanov. The Captain retained a sense of humor throughout the affair, at one point telling reporters that the crew was doing much better "now that all the rats have starved to death." Most of the crew left, but the nine crew members who stayed had a claim against the vessel and decided to tough it out in the hopes of some day not having to return home totally penniless from the ordeal. As in the cases of some of the Odessa's sister ships in ports around the world, the plight of the crew attracted the sympathy and solidarity of port workers, who took them food. During the forced sojourn in the port of Naples, two members of the crew died. 

The film makers stressed that the fate of the crew seemed to parallel the fate of the Soviet Union. The break-up of the USSR left its former republics to fend for themselves, including the Ukraine and, in this case, the totally Ukrainian crew of the Odessa. They had started their careers as Soviet merchant seamen aboard a Soviet ship and were now Ukrainian sailors stuck aboard an arrested vessel in a foreign port, abandoned by all except the small Ukrainian community in Naples and, as noted, the sympathetic Neapolitan merchant marine community. The Odessa was finally auctioned off in April of 2002 for 1,250,000 euros, 500,000 euros of which was designated for the eight surviving crew members. I later read that the Odessa was again in her home port on the Black Sea undergoing refitting for another try at the cruise game. Up to the point of the release of the film a few years ago, there had been no such happy ending, and now it seems there shall be none.

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