HALIFAX -- An international mariners union says the decision of eight Central American mariners to leave a rusty tug in Halifax and fly home is similar to a U.S. incident involving the same vessel.

Transport Canada deemed the 68-year-old Craig Trans unsafe on Dec. 18, but the boat's owner declined to fly the crew back to Central America.

The Mission to Seafarers in Halifax raised $7,000 and transferred donated airline points to allow the crew to fly to their homes in Honduras and El Salvador early Monday.

But it's not the first time the Craig Trans has drawn the concern of safety inspectors and unions.

An inspector with the International Transport Workers Federation says the tug, owned by New Jersey-based Vesta Shipping, was involved in a similar incident in Seattle that resulted in the U.S. coast guard ordering the detention of the Craig Trans.

Jeff Engels, the union inspector, said he paid $3,800 to return three crew members to their homes in Central America and the Caribbean after they decided they wouldn't stay on the Craig Trans in November 2011.

"The crew would come on the vessel, find it was in terrible condition and they would want to go home," he said in a telephone interview.

Petty Officer Jonathan Clough of the U.S. coast guard says his office detained the vessel from Nov. 2 until Dec. 2, 2011.

Safety problems included a lack of proper navigational publications, life-saving equipment and immersion suits, he said in a telephone interview from Seattle.

"I wouldn't go to sea in it. One of their generators was atomizing fuel. It had a pinhole leak and it was spraying fuel into the air when we got down there," he recalled.

Clough said the coast guard allowed the vessel to leave when the owner fixed the various deficiencies and a plan was made to restrict the tug to steaming close to shore.

Gerard Antoine, president of Vesta Shipping, which owns the Craig Trans, denied the generator was spraying fuel in Seattle, adding all problems were fixed before it departed.

"They gave me nine things to do, and I did them," he said.

He said he plans to fix the Craig Trans in Halifax and find a new crew for the vessel.

Clough recalled that the three sailors on board the Craig Trans in Seattle said they were leaving the ship because of poor living conditions and concerns about the vessel.

"They didn't trust the vessel to make the voyage the owner was talking about making, which was sailing to ... Mexico and there picking up a barge and towing it to China," he said.

Antoine said it was the crew members' decision to leave the vessel and it wasn't his responsibility to pay their airfares.

"You got food, you got everything on the ship, you don't want to go to Mexico ... you don't want to go to China. You think I should pay for you to go home?" said Antoine.

But Rev. Tony Haycock said food was initially in short supply for the crew in Seattle.

"They also said they didn't want to sail because it wasn't seaworthy," said Haycock, a priest who helped raise money for the crew.

Engels said Transport Canada should carefully examine the structural integrity of the vessel and ensure its seaworthiness to tow large vessels along the Canadian coast.

Transport Canada spokeswoman Celine Gaudet said safety and security remains a priority for the government.

"The department detained the Craig Trans in December due to poor living conditions of the crew and concerns about pollution," she wrote in an email.

"More specifically, deficiencies also included life-saving equipment and firefighting equipment."

She said the problems have been thoroughly discussed with Vesta and the firm has the responsibility to fix the boat.

In an interview last week, Antoine downplayed the problems found on the boat in Halifax.

"Most deficiencies they have are cosmetic things," he said.

Clough said it's difficult for regulators to stop vessels like the Craig Trans from going to sea.

"If he can bring the vessel to a minimal level of safe operation and if he can find crew who are willing, it gets harder to keep him (in port) at that point," he said.