Southern hospitality for stranded ship's crew : The vessel is a Yugoslav asset frozen in the U.S. Residents of Charleston prove generous.


The early haze that obscured the sun foretold another hot and humid summer day for this coastal city. Dockhands on the long concrete wharf wiped sweaty faces and watched as two red tugboats nudged the huge ship toward the dock.

Because of her empty cargo hold, the Kapetan Martinovic, a rusting, black freighter with white upper decks and cabins, rode high in the water. This morning, the 506-foot ship would touch land for the first time in five months--but only for the day.

When the ship was secured, Chief Mate Bosko Celebic descended the rickety metal steps, his stained white coveralls soaked in sweat, his dark eyes fixed on the water hoses that would be connected to his ship.

"Ah, water! Is very important to me as chief. It is very hot today," he said as a big brass valve was turned and the flow of 322 metric tons of fresh water began to spill into the vessel's tanks.

For more than a year, the Kapetan Martinovic has been detained in the United States as a result of a U.S. executive order freezing the assets of the government of Yugoslavia. It is one of five vessels of the Milena Ship Management Co. Two others are stranded in New Orleans, one in New York and one in Baltimore.

After running up big dock fees in Savannah, Ga., for five months, the ship has been lying at anchor for free since last December in Charleston harbor, between historic Ft. Sumter, where the first shot of the Civil War was fired in 1861, and the Battery, a seafront avenue of magnificent antebellum homes.

The docking of the Kapetan Martinovic last week was the climax of an effort by many in Charleston to come to her aid.

When local news media reported that the captain and his skeleton crew of twelve were down to a daily ration of a bucket of water each, and were suffering in temperatures of over 100 degrees on board, the people of Charleston demonstrated their hospitality.

Soon after the ship tied up, air-conditioning repair workers were scampering across the deck. The tugboats, the river pilots, the fresh water supply and the air-conditioning engineers had all been donated by residents who wanted to help this crew caught in a political web that has left them stranded.

Richard Salmon, who allowed the ship to use his pier at no charge, said: "If it was the crew's fault, then people wouldn't be reacting. They are living like POWs out there on that ship."

No one was happier to see the air-conditioning repair crews than cook Stevo Antonovic, who had spent weeks sweltering in the ship's galley. Though Antonovic had already prepared a lunch for the crew as the vessel docked, he soon was instead unpacking a dozen pepperoni pizzas donated by a local pizza parlor.

The ship's captain, Luka Brguljan, 46, said he and his crew have been surprised by the outpouring of generosity. "I have met here in Charleston nice people who have helped us," he said. "They have made great donations. We don't like having to have people give to us like poor people, but I like to thank all of them very much."

Gary Santos, the ship's agent in Charleston, said he needs an assistant just to handle the phone calls from people wanting to help. Local businesses, churches, schools and civic organizations have donated home-cooked meals, free long-distance phone calls, medical care, laundry service, clothing, money for spare engine parts, fans, fresh fish and vegetables and tickets to soccer games and other sporting events.

Jade Vogel, 23, and her husband, Peter, became friends of the crew after a chance meeting with Brguljan in a downtown park.

They have taken the men sailing and windsurfing, had them to dinner and even picked fruit and vegetables for them at a local farm. Vogel says the sailors are kind and generous people who are delighted to sit in her air-conditioned apartment, eat mint chocolate chip ice cream and talk about home.

"They didn't ask to be put here. It is not their fault they are here. They are just victims of circumstance," said Vogel, who recently drove two of the crew hundreds of miles to Atlanta to catch a flight home to care for their mothers, who were ill.

Vogel has written to President Clinton and South Carolina's congressional delegation, seeking help for the sailors. "Mine is a very small part. There are an infinite number of people helping," she said. "What worries me is, it is now hurricane season. If the ship goes out to sea to avoid the storms, she will be in trouble since she has no cargo and is sitting so high out of the water. She doesn't have enough fuel to outrun a storm. She must be docked. There is no money for that. What will they do?"

Brguljan says he is not worried about storms. He's been at sea for 27 years and is at home on the water. His hazel eyes soften when he says what he really wants to do is "to move the ship, do our usual job and go home."

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