Seafarers have been the unsung heroes of COVID-19 pandemic. While the world relies on them to transport more than 80% of trade by volume, our seafarers have been collateral victims of the crisis, as travel restrictions left tens of thousands of them stranded on ships, or unable to join ships.

FrontM interviewed the Third Engineer of a shipping major who witnessed the crisis of ‘Crew Change’ very closely. Below are the excerpts of this interview…

“I had plans to visit NASA. Was super excited but never knew then that Shore Leaves were soon to become a thing of the past!”

How did it all start, and gathered pace? 

Honestly, in the beginning, it was just another piece of unconfirmed news. Some articles saying that a new virus had surfaced in China and that it may be fatal. It all seemed okay but it gathered pace like the engine of a sports car. Within days everything came to a grinding halt. Crew change stopped, shore leaves stopped, fresh food supplies had to be stopped fearing contamination and worst of all everything was for an indefinite period. Nobody had the answers as to when and for how long will the situation be like this.

Share your experience when COVID was at its peak and you were in the waters.

Oh! It was very bad. Uncertainty is worse than knowing the situation even if it is bad and this is exactly how we felt. News from across the world gave numbers of dead people, people struggling in hospitals, oxygen shortage and how those inside their homes were struggling for basic supplies. Amid all of this, the whereabouts of our loved ones came once in 24 hours. The rest 23 hours were full of apprehensions and fear because when the next call goes through things may be on the flip side. We were in the middle of nowhere and safe but what about our people? The feeling of us being safe was not enough to ward off the feeling of helplessness because we were not there with our families when the world was grappling with the pandemic.

How did the company treat you and were the resources enough to spend several months in the vessel?

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the company did its best. They ensured we had sanitized and abundant supplies be it food or sanitizers or masks and gloves. The senior management spoke to all of us assuring us that they will send us home as soon as they could and they kept their promise. We were sent home in charted flights at the first instance when the government granted permission. For the extra time we were trapped in the ship, we were paid extra. They cared for us until we reached our homes safely and I am very grateful as none of these arrangements were easy nor was the company bound to any of them but they did.

The family must have been very concerned, about your health and overall situation, and looking forward to your return?

Yes, they were. They were concerned about our safe return but they were relaxed too because the situation on the ship was much better than it was on land. The chances of contamination were very little and thus our families, though missed us and longed to meet us, had this peace of mind that we were away from where the virus had wreak havoc – on the land.

A good side and a bad side of the Crew Change crisis, your perspective?

It was bad. All of it was the bad side. It is not just a physical thing. A prolonged stay on the ship can be very bad mentally, physically and emotionally. You tend to lose focus, feel depressed and begin to lack efficiency. Crew change crisis is bad even for the sailors not sailing. Those stuck on land had bills to pay and some of them could not earn for around one year. Those were desperate times both for those awaiting sign-off as well as sign-on. I hope this never gets repeated ever.

How and in what ways should nations come together and not leave our seafarers stranded if such situations arise in the future – your take?

I think the nations can’t do anything. It was a deadly disease and what was done had to be done. As soon as they could they did allow the crew change. However, the nations can think of an air fleet for such situations. Any such time in the future crew change can happen through these flights/helicopters because no one can guarantee that history will never repeat itself. We have to be prepared. 

What’s the general morale among the crew who have been stranded?

A sailor’s life is all about moving and COVID changed it all. Being stranded on land or at sea was the worst. If you are at sea, you are sick worried about the welfare of your family and if you are on land you are apprehensive about whether you will be able to pay your bills and feed your family. We witnessed that feeling of desperation to join and an equal level of desperation to sign off. The feeling of uncertainty is not good and throughout the period of lockdown, the morale of the sailors was low, very low!

Would you like to make any comments on the bureaucratic impact regarding visas and repatriation flights?

I would say this was a major concern for most of us. Even after the horror of 2020 passed, with gradual easing, many countries still maintain restrictions on crew changes. The difficulties faced by us in obtaining visas or travel permits to transit countries is untellable. Crew changes and repatriation of seafarers still entail serious logistical challenges for stakeholders and calls for a serious and consensual intervention of Governments in coordination with the IMO.

Communication tools and digital technologies how did they help to improve the situation, making it more bearable for the crew?

If you are mentally strong then you can face everything and that is what exactly technology could have done. There was some free connectivity but sometimes the messages didn’t always make it through. I wouldn’t say that it would have helped improve my life entirely but it definitely helped me to better connect and manage the link between my shore contacts a lot better.

Communication tools and digital technologies enhance connectivity and what better way than being able to connect with our families in desperate times. In my personal experience, this connection and the calls with loved ones have always enhanced my focus and efficiency at work. Some of the tools don’t worry really good over satellite this makes communication difficult, more needs to be done to change this. I know onship is doing work on this but we need everyone to do more.