Czech sailors left high and dry

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Anyone who has spent more than a few hours in the Czech Republic knows that the most frequent greeting used among friends is the casual 'ahoj'. The greeting is so typically Czech few Brits realize that it actually comes from their own 'Ship Ahoy!' or 'Land Ahoy!' used by sailors at the start of the century. It first appeared in the Czech language sometime in the 1920s, just a couple of years after the birth of Czechoslovakia, and became so popular that in no time at all everyone was saying it. But the last Czech merchant seamen still sailing the high seas may be about to say their last 'Land Ahoy!'. Just weeks ago, the only remaining all-Czech crew was forced to leave Poseidon's realm forever. Daniela Lazarova has the story:

Although, as you might have noticed, the Czech Republic is a landlocked country, the Czechs have always had their own merchant fleet and crews of sailors. At the height of its fame, of landlocked countries only Switzerland had a larger merchant marine. As late as 1993, the Czech Merchant Marine was making an annual 70 million crowns transporting goods to far off ports around the world. The ships bore the names of the nation's heroes or rivers: The Vltava, Jan Hus, Jan Zizka and the like.

Then entrepreneur Viktor Kozeny, better known as the 'Pirate of Prague', bought the entire merchant fleet and promptly sold off every single ship. If Czechs were sorry to lose their merchant fleet, the sailors on board were even sorrier. It was clear that it was only a question of time until the ships' new owners replaced them with their own crews.

That gradually happened and today six hundred Czech sailors have been left high and dry. While some have given up and taken jobs on dry land, many are trying to find employment on other ships. At best they will be scattered the world over, and as one of them says it is not easy to find a place among close-knit and perfectly synchronized foreign crews.

An official from the sailors' union admits that things are not looking good. Finding jobs for naval officers is somewhat easier but for regular crewmen it is next to impossible. Ukrainians, Russians and Phillipinos are also fighting to get a share of the vacancies and offering cut-price services. I hate to admit it, he says, but this could be the last voyage for Czech sailors on the high seas.