Inchcape’s perspective on crew changes

Apr 15 2021

Shipping agency network Inchcape Shipping Services shares its perspectives on handling the challenges of facilitating crew changes during COVID-19.

Seafarers are invisible victims of COVID-19. Due to local restrictions and logistical challenges, hundreds of thousands have been stranded at sea, marooned on vessels for, in some cases, months beyond agreed contracts.


“In this global industry there’s suddenly an explosion of local restrictions, complicating once relatively straightforward logistical operations or, in some cases, making them impossible,” says Feizel Mohammed, Global Sector Head, Ship & Crew Managers with Inchcape, based in Singapore,


“You need the local knowledge to understand what you can and can’t do, the global perspective to find alternative solutions, and the flexibility to adapt. It is very, very challenging.”


Ports open and close for crew changes without warning. Those that are open have their own quarantine rules and durations, with a variety of routines for transit to and from vessels, and varying demands for PCR testing, hotel stays, and different crew nationalities.


Flight availability to and from hubs is, for the most part, radically different from pre-COVID times, making previously exceptional private charters a common, and expensive, solution. And a new breed of regulations has spawned an avalanche of paperwork.


“If we were facilitating a crew change of 10 people at the start of the year we’d use one minivan,” Mr Mohammed says. “Now, due to safe social distancing and hygiene protocols, we’d have three, with a maximum occupancy of four per vehicle. It goes without saying how much more expensive that is.”


“Crews are under extraordinary pressure at present, and that impacts upon them and their families, but also on our customer’s shore-based staff that have to try and support them under exceptional circumstances,” Mr Mohammed says.


“I may be going home late,” he shrugs, “but I am going home. I want to make sure as many crews as possible round the world can do the same.


“There’s still work to be done.”


Manish Ranjan, Head of Vessel Supply Chain Hub with Inchcape, based in Mumbai, says that the company has maintained  a strong level of activity in key hubs such as Fujairah, Singapore, Houston, Hong Kong, Rotterdam,  Gibraltar, Panama, Egypt.


Annual crew change numbers were approaching a million in 2019. In 2020, he anticipates a fall of only around 20 per cent.


“We can see the big picture,” he says. “If a crew change is impossible in one port we can advise and facilitate it in another that complements vessel schedules and operations.


“If there is a 14 day quarantine requirement in one location, incurring significant hotel costs and inconvenience, we can plan to deviate to another where, for example, there might only be a five or seven day isolation, or none.


“Because we have people on the ground worldwide we have relationships with port authorities to understand their individual needs, know exact documentation requirements and, where necessary, lobby for special considerations in extreme circumstances.”


Mr Ranjan cites one case in July where several ship management customers joined forces in a bid to charter flights for 100 seafarers – from India and Sri Lanka – to fly into Gibraltar and relieve existing crews on numerous ships.


With only 48 hours notice, Inchcape conducted an operation that saw teams across continents facilitating a crew consolidation in Doha, an overnight stay in London (where a hotel was persuaded to open especially), multiple transfers, hours of immigration negotiations at several airports, and the eventual arrival in Gibraltar, from where the process started again in reverse with a number of off-signing crew travelling back to India.


“It wouldn’t have been possible without the close internal collaboration of our international offices, using their physical presence and contacts on the ground to get things done. That kind of exercise build bonds, between us as a company, but also between us and the customers, as partners. It creates a deeper sense of trust.”


COVID tracker

In March 2020, Inchcape launched a ‘COVID-tracker’ on its website, delivering an in-depth overview of evolving restrictions at major ports around the world. Combining official notifications of regulations with insights from local Inchcape people on the ground, alongside proprietary data, the tracker gives users a constantly updated picture of exactly what rules, restrictions and paperwork are relevant in any given location.


“The real-time nature of the tracker gives key decision makers, both on the bridge and on shore, the ability to understand detailed requirements and, if necessary, alter operations to best meet objectives,” Mr Ranjan says.


Inchcape Shipping Services has 240 offices in 68 countries, covering around 2,500 ports, with approximately 3,000 staff. Services include full cargo agency, dry-docking management, survey and inspection, financial management and bunker calls.


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