Stranded sailors find a warm welcome on Shetland quayside: A legal wrangle has left the crew of a Lithuanian ship dependent on local largesse. Will Bennett reports

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The Independent Online
A PIECE of paper signed by the Messenger-at-Arms in Aberdeen is taped to the foredeck mast of the rusty Lithuanian ship Darius anchored in an inlet to the Shetland Islands. In imperious tones, it orders the arrest of the vessel.

Until the warrant is legitimately removed from the 20,000-tonne fish-factory ship it will have to remain in Dales Voe, where it has been for the past four months. This maritime legal wrangle has left the crew dependent on the kindness of local people. The Darius's engines failed during the storms which led to the wrecking of the Braer on Shetland in January. It was towed to safety near Lerwick by the salvage tug Smit Lloyd 121, which had come to the islands in an unsuccessful attempt to save the oil tanker.

The tug's owners, the Dutch company Smit Tak, then presented the Lithuanian state shipping firm Yura with a salvage bill for pounds 650,000. The Lithuanians, already in financial difficulties, were unable to pay and the 137 men and 13 women aboard found themselves stranded despite the fact that its engines were soon mended.

Worse, they were left without pay and with a diminishing food supply. Luckily for them, a remarkable linguist, Derick Herning, lives four miles away in Lerwick.

Mr Herning, 60, a schoolteacher, is in the Guinness Book of Records for speaking more languages than anyone else and is fluent in most of the Slavonic tongues. He said: 'I can get by in about 26 or 27 languages and I speak Russian, Bulgarian, Czech, Serbo-Croat and Polish among others.'

After the crew had been stranded for a month, he and a local farmer, Brian Anderson, became worried about them. His linguistic skills enabled him to talk to the sailors, a mixture of nationalities from the former Soviet Union. He said: 'Brian and I went down to the Darius and discovered that they had no fresh vegetables, no eggs, no fish and very little flour left. It was quite obvious that something would have to be done.'

Ironically, a charity called the Shetland Aid Trust had been set up to send help to people in the former Communist bloc. Its organisers never dreamed that needy east Europeans would turn up on their own doorstep.

Having been contacted by Mr Herning and boosted by an appeal on local radio, the trust has organised a weekly delivery of food worth pounds 400, including a ton of vegetables, four boxes of fresh fish, 90 dozen eggs and 75 pints of milk.

Fred Levitt, the Lithuanian first mate, said: 'I don't have friends in my own country like I do in Shetland. I have been at sea for 40 years and I have never seen anything like this. We could not have survived without their kindness.'

The crew have now been on Shetland so long that at least two have found local girlfriends and they have had time to remove hundreds of tyres from the rubbish tip. They aim to ship these to Lithuania, where the absence of an MoT test means that they will have a long life. Two weeks ago, two of the crew were taken home by another Lithuanian ship, and those remaining received some pay. The dispute over the salvage money will go to arbitration next month.

But the immediate future looks bleak for those left behind. Some 35 of them will have to stay on board until the row is resolved, probably by selling the ship to raise money. This could take months.

The others will be taken off by a sister ship, which has just set out from Lithuania. But the bad news is that this will immediately head for the Newfoundland fishing grounds for six months. It will be Christmas before they see their families again.

(Photographs omitted)