All at sea: Stranded ship crews are shipping's hidden Covid crisis

Covid-19 clampdowns have left ship crews stranded at sea, in an operational nightmare for shipping companies that also threatens supply chains

Gus, an Egyptian national, has been stuck at sea for longer than 12 months and just wants to go home. Back ashore, he has a family to take care of but he is unable to do anything for them. The seafarer is hardly alone. About 600,000 crew are in limbo on deck or at home, as tightened restrictions on movement during the Covid-19 pandemic make crew changes a difficult and lengthy process.

"I have many sleepless nights and important pending medical issues - sometimes I can't help but lose concentration during critical job situations on deck," says Gus, who declined to give his real name. He added that the crew onboard a 130-metre dry bulk carrier off Vietnam "are also being aggressive with each other, making this sailing atmosphere horrible."

Some seafarers have been on a ship for many months beyond their contracts - or even past regulatory limits of 11 months - after governments shut down borders, suspended visas, and imposed stringent restrictions on ships docking, to halt the spread of Covid-19 early in the year. This has fuelled concern over crews' rising fatigue and safety, and caused disruptions and bottlenecks in supply chains worldwide. Now, more than six months on, the shipping community faces little reprieve and much-higher operating costs.

Around 80 per cent of world trade by volume is carried on vessels that range from container ships to fuel tankers and dry bulk carriers, according to the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF).

A recent survey by the ITF found that around 70 per cent of respondents said they were "forced to extend their contracts", while around 10 per cent have been on board for more than 12 months. Estimates put the number of seafarers stuck at sea beyond their contracts at between 250,000 and 360,000.

"Almost all criticism for the current situation is directed at governments," said the ITF survey. "Respondents highlight the Chinese, Panamanian and Bahamian governments for refusing to allow the crew change of foreign nationals through their ports, while others direct their anger at their own government - mostly India, for refusing them repatriation to their homes and families."

These roadblocks have forced companies to find alternative routes to bring crew home or on board, while keeping a rein on cost and time.

In addition, the unpredictability and changing schedules along shipping routes make crew changes "very hard to coordinate", says Rajesh Unni, chief executive of ship management company Synergy Group.

Commercial flights to and from countries such as India and the Philippines - where the majority of shipping crew hail from - are few and far between with the shutdown in aviation brought on by the pandemic. Singapore-based Miclyn Express Offshore (MEO) had to source for chartered flights from Indonesia to India, via Qatar.

"While this exercise alone nearly tripled the cost compared to crew change arrangements pre-Covid-19, it was necessary due to our commitment to constant care," says Bryan Fernandez, group operations/ crewing manager of MEO.

Capt Unni agrees: "With restrictions such as pre-joining protocols, post-arrival requirements for mandatory quarantine and changes at anchorage, the cost of crew change per person (in some cases) had skyrocketed up to US$6,000… It was closer to an average of US$700 to US$800 before the pandemic.

"Considering the almost untenable costs, there were some parsimonious or genuinely helpless companies that actually deferred their crew changes."

Now, with more commercial flights available, companies have been able to manage in numbers closer to averagely US$1,500/pax, says Capt Unni. MEO, which operates crewed vessel charters, has also tried sourcing for local crew from where the vessel operates. Capt Fernandez says that this, however, does not resolve the core problem that seafarers face.

"As contract workers, seafarers are not usually paid unless they are working on board; many of them are still stuck at home due to regulatory restrictions on air travel in some countries," he says.

Stuck between a detour and a closed border

Carl Schou, president and chief executive of Wilhelmsen Ship Management tells BT that shipping companies are now also resorting to detours to ports in Manila and India in order to conduct crew changes. Although these major diversions - such as travelling to the port of Manila during the Australia-China route - could cause time delays, they ultimately still prove a more practical alternative, says Mr Schou.

However, Stephen Cotton, general secretary of the ITF, says that risks are still present, as charters and cargo owners may force ships to honour the charter parties - the contracts between shipowners and merchants hiring the ships. "This in turn may mean that ships have to continue on their routes without the possibility to divert," in order to meet schedules defined in their contracts.

Currently, only the UK and South Australia recognises seafarers as "key workers", allowing crew to be granted an exemption from the mandatory 14-day quarantine. Most countries have more stringent conditions - such as suspended visas and lockdowns - set in place to protect their borders (see graphic), and healthy seafarers looking to go home or start work have fallen in between the cracks.

"There is a strong concern that protocols in the maritime industry designed to facilitate crew changes... have not been fully implemented or taken into account by governments," says Mr Cotton. "This creates a frustrating situation, whereby ship owners cannot plan for crew changes, or have difficulty doing so."

Mr Cotton adds: "Seafarers, who are the group hit hardest by the inability of governments to cooperate, find themselves in an impossible situation... and the uncertainty about their repatriation creates a concern about their mental health and ability to perform their work safely."

Crew management companies BT spoke to said they are doing their best to make conditions on deck more pleasant, to reduce fatigue levels.

Companies like Wilhelmsen have improved broadband capacity and connections on board, so crew have a chance to call their families and use the internet. They also include mental well-being campaigns that aim to help reduce the stress levels and improve sleep for crew on board.

Still, crew on board have a right to refuse to sail and be repatriated once they spend longer than 12 months onboard, according to the ITF.

In early August, some seafarers stuck at sea beyond their original contracts aboard three vessels refused to sail in bid for repatriation, causing these idle ships to block berths and clog ports along the Australian shore.

An "operational nightmare"

The need to ensure an uninterrupted flow of essential goods is fundamental for global economies, says Mr Cotton. "If tomorrow, the seafarers who have completed their contracts decide that enough is enough (and correctly so) claim their rights to be repatriated or leave ships, the effects on economies will be immediate and devastating."

However, the onus ultimately lies on stakeholders in the shipping industry to work together in order to tighten up protocols and make sure that there are no Covid-19 cases on board, says Wilhelmsen's Mr Schou. "Governments want to cooperate, but they would ultimately have to put the interest of their own citizens first," he adds.

"They would only be more comfortable in allowing movement of crew when the industry can prove that they can be responsible in ensuring that seafarers are healthy and well."

Industry players are on the same page.

Consequences of having a Covid-19 case on board are extremely costly, says Mr Schou. "If anyone on deck has the virus, the ship would have to be in quarantine for 14 days - racking up costs in berthing fees, crew quarantine fees and demurrage fees, as well as causing delays in the supply chain."

These could cost shipping companies upwards of a hundred thousand dollars, and will not be covered by insurers as it is caused by a pandemic, he adds. Industry specialists told BT that operating expenditures have risen by at least 15 per cent. The costs of mandatory quarantines and Covid-19 tests have become part of the new normal, says Capt Fernandez, who manages a global fleet of 115 vessels.

"High demand for limited flights and isolation facilities have caused price hikes for such set-ups of around 25 per cent, while additional costs - for disinfection and precautionary measures - add up."

There should also be greater cooperation and coordination between governments and industry to pre-empt a Covid-19 outbreak on board, players say. For example, Mr Schou recommends that all governments provide the option for ship owners/managers to request for a voluntary Covid-19 swab test prior to crew sign-on.

"This option will greatly support our process as we would like to do a final verification prior to signing on crew. Many key ports that allow crew change have this option available, but so far not in Singapore yet."

"We are of the opinion that a swab test done in the crew's home country is not enough, as there is still a window for them to catch the virus during travel or transit - which could span over a few days - before they board the ship. A final swab test gives us higher assurance that the crew are indeed Covid-19 free," he adds.

"Port and border restrictions across the globe are constantly changing and often vary greatly, as governments react to resurgences of Covid-19 cases. This, coupled with changing ship routes, are an operational nightmare," says Capt Fernandez of Miclyn Express Offshore.

For example, starting July 29, Hong Kong requires merchant ships calling for purposes other than loading or discharging cargoes to undergo 14 days' compulsory quarantine. This has directly hit crew replacement by those ships which do not have to unload or load cargoes.

The Singapore government is stepping up to facilitate better processes in the sector. Since March 27, 2020, the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) has facilitated crew change for more than 21,000 sign-on and sign-off crew, it said.

So far, there have been five Covid-19 positive crew in the port of Singapore as a result of the crew change, says MPA.

"We expect to conduct some 200-300 crew changes per day, and for Singapore-registered ships, 98 per cent of the crew change has taken place," a spokesperson for MPA told BT.

On Sept 1, MPA, along with the Singapore Shipping Association (SSA), Singpore Maritime Officers' Union and Singapore Organisation of Seamen, set up a S$1 million Singapore Shipping Tripartite Alliance Resilience (SG-STAR) fund to support initiatives to help ensure the safe passage of seafarers from crew supply countries.The fund now totals S$1.68 million, following contributions by the ITF and the International Maritime Employers' Council on Thursday.

These may include establishing proper isolation facilities and whitelisting qualifying medical institutions to provide safe, accurate, and timely Covid-19 PCR tests, says SSA.

"Seafarers are key maritime workers," adds SSA. "Facilitating crew change will keep global supply chains open and essential goods flowing into Singapore.

"Better support in the upstream process will also help minimise imported cases here."

Three existing floating facilities at the Tanjong Pagar Terminal have been set up as a self-contained centre to house seafarers. The crew facilitation centre, opened Sept 1, is equipped with an onsite medical centre as well as testing and holding facilities. This centre will house crew for up to 48 hours before they board their ships, in case their ship and flight schedules do not match. Sign-off crew can also stay at existing designated holding facilities for up to 48 hours.

"This gives companies a little more buffer time to get their crew on board commercial flights, which do not run every day," says Mr Schou. "It is a step in the right direction."

Lars Grünitz, managing director at Norstar ship management, says: "Crew change has been one of our most challenging work in the last few months... The holding facility helps smoothen the process, this is still a good start; but I do wish it could be more than 48 hours."

Piracy threatens global supply chain

AS SHIPPING companies grapple with an unprecedented global crisis, a rise in piracy is also poised to threaten supply chains. The first half of 2020 saw a spike in piracy around the world, with 98 attacks compared to 78 for the same period last year, according to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB).

Out of these 98 attacks, 15 were from Indonesia, two from Malaysia and 11 incidents took place in the Singapore Straits, said the IMB report. In contrast, just one incident was recorded in the Singapore Straits for the four years prior.

In August alone, six incidents were reported in Asia's waters, of which three involved perpetrators brandishing knives and threatening workers on board ships, said a report by the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP).

There were 65 robberies reported in the January to August period this year in Asia, said ReCAAP, a 38 per cent increase from the year-ago period and the highest since 2015.

Those in the maritime sector hesitate to link the surge in crime to the current situation of ships stuck at sea due to coronavirus-linked restrictions. But they point to a weakened economic climate during the global pandemic, as well as a lapse in security measures due to tighter budgets.

Although the majority of incidents were recorded as "category 4" - or "least significant" incidents - since perpetrators were not armed and the crew not harmed, there is concern that the situation might escalate.

"Robbers might get emboldened if we let our guard down," says Tan Kim Hock, deputy programme director of the maritime studies programme at Nanyang Technology University. (NTU) "They might adopt the bolder strikes deployed by pirates in Somalia or African waters, and go for a bigger scale attack."

It is also unlikely that such sea robbers get caught, says Andrew Shannon, a master mariner and maritime lawyer. "They often attack when ships are in between borders - such as in between the waters of Singapore and Indonesia - to take advantage of the change in coastal security between jurisdictions," says Mr Shannon."Lateral cooperation between the three nations along the Straits of Malacca - Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia - is very important, and these countries must step up surveillance and enforcement," says Capt Tan, who held top management roles in shipping companies before joining NTU.

Even so, deterrence measures are often "more than enough" to fend off robbers, says the captain, who had passed the Straits of Malacca many times during his 13 years of command at sea. Such measures include keeping all lights on deck turned on, travelling at "full sea speed" to outrun small boats, and aggressive manoeuvring and water sprays to deter those trying to climb aboard.

Once robbers come on board however, there is little captains can do in defence. Protocol is for captain and crew to hide in a safe room and if confronted by a robber; accede to requests and err on the side of caution.

Most perpetrators of small-scale attacks in the Straits of Malacca come from coastal settlements, and might be resorting to sea robbery to supplement their livelihoods, say observers. However, the level of threat is also lower compared to kidnapping-for-ransom operations off Somalia, as well as in the Sulu-Celebus Sea, where pirates share deadly connections with clans of the Abu Sayyaf. A recent case on Aug 25, involving a Singapore-registered petroleum/chemical tanker, saw 11 drums of paint stolen from the ship.

More serious issues ("category 1" cases) include the abduction of crew. On Jan 17, six masked gunmen dressed in black suits abducted eight crew from a Malaysia-registered fishing trawler in the Sulu-Celebes Seas. The trawler was found abandoned with no crew on board. Three of the eight missing were later recovered in the vicinity of Lahad Datu, Sabah.

ReCAAP has "strongly advised" ships to reroute from that area and exercise vigilance.

Even so, pirates in Asia often have a different modus operandi compared to those elsewhere. Instead of demanding ransom, those in Asian waters tend to take ships away with cargo and crew on board, in order to siphon off cargo to the black market, say observers.

"These major operations can often cost shipping companies and their respective insurance companies millions of dollars, and can have the unfortunate side effect of tarnishing those shipping companies' reputation, especially if they are targeted more than once," says Mr Shannon.


BT is now on Telegram!

For daily updates on weekdays and specially selected content for the weekend. Subscribe to