Covid and seafarers

Nov 12 2020

The Nautical Institute held a webinar on June 25 to commemorate the “Day of the Seafarer”, with comment from senior staff from InterManager, Anglo Eastern, Princess Cruises, and NI’s Ireland branch about the situation with seafarers with Covid.

The Nautical Institute held a webinar on June 25 to commemorate the “Day of the Seafarer,” with speakers from InterManager, Anglo Eastern, Princess Cruises and the Nautical Institute Ireland branch, commenting on the situation with seafarers in the Covid era.


Captain Nick Nash, former president of the Nautical Institute and currently rotating captain of the newest Princess Cruises vessel “Enchanted Princess”, said that the importance of the work of the seafarers is not getting through to wider society. 


“We’re a silent service making the world go around,” he said. “Those Amazon parcels [arrive] because we have people still working there in these difficult conditions.”


Jillian Carson-Jackson, president of the Nautical Institute, noted that a Seafarers’ Happiness Index compiled by the Mission to Seafarers showed a decrease in seafarer’s rating of their satisfaction levels in its latest issue in January 2020. The decline was from 6.39 / 10 in Q4 2019 to 6.3 / 10 in Q1 2020. There are many stories circulating about “the negative side of what it means to be a seafarer,” she said.



Kuba Szymanski, secretary general of the International Ship Managers Association (InterManager)  said that seafarers and former seafarers working in ship management companies have a mindset of fixing problems, and have been searching hard to find ways to move crew to and from vessels in the face of changing regulations. 


For example, if it was not possible to fly Polish crew home to an airport in Poland, they could be flown to Berlin and taken home by bus.


Most seafarers would not like to be anywhere else but at sea. “You spend 2-3 months at home and want to go back,” he said. “That’s where we belong, we belong at sea.” 


But at the time of the webinar there were many delays in moving seafarers to and from vessels, and the authorities were not all helpful.


The company had a graph on its website at showing the number of seafarers who are due to travel and how many have managed to travel, and where they need to go, and the gap is widening. “We have to start catching up. In 3 months, it will be an even worse problem for us,” he said. 


At the time of the webinar, authorities in the UK and Australia were detaining ships where the crew had been onboard for longer than their contracts said, under the Port State Control regime. 


This was forcing the issue, since the vessel would not be able to leave the port until the crew had been changed. But it was not necessarily helpful if the government did not also allow replacement crew onboard. 


“The UK government was always very good. Throughout COVID, London and Aberdeen airports were open, we could carry out crew changes,” he said. “Germany was superb, Berlin and Amsterdam were flying all the time.”


But the Australian government was not facilitating crew replacements to get onto vessels. “It is very cheeky of Australia to do what they do. If I was a seafarer I would be delighted, if Australia gives a ship a yellow card, then crew would be allowed to go home from this port.  But people have to understand, someone has to be allowed on to relieve.” 


“It isn’t ‘last person switch the lights off, thankyou.’ I wonder what Australia would do with all those ships unmanned. They would scream because the ships might drift into their lovely waters.”


Some national governments are saying that it is possible to bring in replacement seafarers, but then border control staff do not allow them through the airport.


Mr Szymanski said he had heard that Manilla airport would allow 1200 passengers a day, and not all that capacity is for seafarers. But the industry needs 40,000 seafarers from the Philippines to go out to vessels every month, and the same amount coming back.


India was also restricting Indian seafarers going out and in. In Sri Lanka, 11 former seafarers tested positive for COVID and then the government imposed restrictions. 


The Panama Registry has agreed contracts can be extended by 3 months, something Mr Szymanski sees as kicking the can down the road. “Extending contracts further is not helping. I am not happy with the Panama approach.” 


Mr Szymanski was asked about the current situation with regulations for maximum working hours onboard.  


He replied it is 10 years since the Manilla diplomatic conference held in June 2010 with updates to the STCW convention and code. At that meeting, it was surprisingly the Danish and Dutch governments pushing for a working week of up to 90 hours. 


“I have no idea how long it will take before we get to 70 hours a week or 45 hours a week,” he said. “Australia is working very hard. We know who the friends are. It is a political game, there’s a lot of discussion behind the scenes, people trying to persuade each other.”


Captain Vikram Malhotra, Anglo Eastern

Captain Vikram Malhotra, QHSE manager with Anglo Eastern Ship Management, said that it would be helpful if more administrations would treat seafarers as the ‘key workers’ they are, and reduce the bureaucratic hassle.


If we define a key worker as someone we need to have, then seafarers definitely fit the definition. “We need more support from the administrations to take seafarers as key workers, and allow them the same sort of privileges for travel as for the airline [staff] and others.”


Many countries including the US require visas for a seafarer to get from an airport to a vessel, and consulates are shut, so people can only sign on and off vessels on ports within their own country.


 “There are a few countries that permit e-visas, but not many. The administrations need to permit visa free travel for seafarers. They should permit on the seaman’s book.”


Some countries require seafarers to be quarantined for 14 days before they can go onboard. “That becomes another logistical issue for us.”


“But on the whole we are extremely, extremely proud of how our seafarers have managed the situation, done their duties, taken their care,” he said. “It is very heartening how the seafarers have taken this upon themselves. It is not in a training manual, they had invented solutions.”


Nick Nash, Princess Cruises

Captain Nick Nash with Princess Cruises said that his company had the challenge of getting crew home from 105 vessels after Covid hit, and all passenger cruises cancelled. It has spent $46m on crew repatriation so far.


It re-purposed two of its vessels as ferries, taking crew home, with crew from Philippines, Indonesia and India, sailing around the Cape of Good Hope (South Africa) to the Philippines. 


There have still been challenges arranging with the authorities for the crew to leave vessels. “We’ve got 22 ships anchored off Manilla trying to get seafarers off. We got 16,000 crew members off, we’ve got 15,000 to go. Some areas have been closed off despite the IMO protocol for transfers.”


There are problems relieving the technical crew, who need to be onboard when the ship has no passengers. A flight was chartered from Europe to Manilla, planned for June 20 week, but was delayed due to visa problems. It is now planned for the first week of July.


Because it is easier getting crew on and off ships in the UK, “It might have been quicker to get a ship to the UK and fly crew out of London to Manilla,” he said.


There are other issues, with 22 ships “anchored in a fairly small area with squalls coming in. There are problems of trying to keep crew motivated. So it is a huge issue outside our normal routine.”


Constantly changing regulatory restrictions are a problem. In one case, it had organised a charter flight to Mexico to bring in new crew, and then suddenly flights were banned.


Seafarers have a “get on with the job” way of thinking. “We didn’t have a ship manual about how to deal with Covid 19. I’ve never seen anything like this in 44 years at sea.”


On cruise ships, crew are allowed to take a guest cabin with internet and a balcony, and they have an entertainments director finding movies. There are outdoor movies in the evening which people can watch together, while keeping social distancing. “We’re keeping people alive. But it doesn’t make up for not being at home. It is not the best at sea.”


“The worst thing is when we say to seafarers, you’re getting off tomorrow, we get them to the launch [boat], they go ashore, at exorbitant prices, get to the airport, the flight is cancelled. Then they go to the ship and have to go to quarantine again. And they are nationals, they are not refugees.”


In future, it should be possible to run ships with less people actually coming onboard, with more remote inspections and possibly remote pilotage, he said.


Dierdre Lane

Dierdre Lane, Chairman of The Nautical Institute Ireland Branch and Harbour Master of Dunmore East, said that as well as problems with seafarers getting home, there are problems with seafarers unable to get to a ship to start work, or worried about not being able to work.


Before they join a ship they are asked to self-isolate in a hotel for a week. “They’ve lost a week of leave, and it is absolutely grim, no e-mall, and food left at the door.”


Once onboard, many crew feel safe from the virus in the ship’s “bubble”, but also have a big fear of the virus being brought onboard by a visitor. “Now is perhaps the time to look to technology to reduce ships’ visits as much as possible,” she said.


When stuck onboard for an extended period, they miss the “head space” that you get from having shore leave, she said.


Seafarers have the same COVID worries as everyone else, but having the worries away from family and friends. 


Many companies see taking cadets (student seafarers) as a risk. 


However some cadets are happy to stay longer onboard vessels, so fulfil their required number of sea months, and also considering the uncertainty about whether they can get on another ship. Some other cadets have finished the shipboard part of their course but not sure how they can do the college part, she said.


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