Crew repatriation: the brighter side of things
The number of seafarers pending their sign-off at sea is increasing by the day as the industry awaits flag and port states to lift Covid-19 related travel restrictions and enable the unsung heroes of the sea to finally go home.
The debate is heating up as unions vow to take matters into their own hands and start enforcing seafarers’ rights to leave ships and go home, which could lead to a massive disruption to global trade.
The overall situation is exacerbating the seafarers’ state of mind as cases of self-harm on board and even suicide start to emerge, supporting the argumentation that extension of contracts is pushing seafarers’ physical and mental endurance to their limits.
It is estimated that starting in mid-June 2020 as many as 300,000 seafarers a month will require international flights to enable ships’ crew changeover and 70,000 cruise ship staff are waiting for their repatriation.
However, there are some positive developments in the field, as Singapore steps up its efforts to boost repatriation figures.
The Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) has updated the requirements for crew change for cargo ships in the Port of Singapore and wowed to enhance support to seafarers working onboard Singapore-registered ships (SRS).
To date, MPA has approved about 6,000 crew changes for cargo ships since March 27, 2020.
“MPA appreciates the feedback from our industry and unions, which has helped us enhance the arrangements for crew change. For crew change applications made from June 19, 2020, MPA has designated two facilities to accommodate crew who are unable to transfer directly to his/her vessel or flight and require a temporary rest area of up to 48 hours,” the port authority said.
“In addition, to facilitate crew signing off in Singapore, technology such as tele-medicine consultations can be used to obtain a fit-to-travel certificate.”
Given the high volume of crew change applications, MPA said it would accord priority for crew change in Singapore to SRS.
All SRS will be allowed to carry out crew change in Singapore if they meet all prevailing requirements, as SRS may face difficulties in repatriating their crew at foreign ports.
Where possible, MPA, as the flag administration, offered to help to contact the relevant port authorities and request for assistance to be rendered.
Furthermore, Djibouti announced its readiness to facilitate crew change operations in Djibouti for any ships passing through the Bab el Mandeb strait, with the necessary support provided by the Djibouti Ports and Free Zones Authority (DPFZA).
The move comes in response to the joint statement of the IMO and UNCTAD ( June 9) to support crew changes in solidarity with seafarers stranded on ships due to Covid-19 restrictions.
“Djibouti is stepping up, to become part of the global solution, and calls upon the other countries to take the same steps so we could overcome the crisis in a concerted and coordinated fashion.”
The Cyprus Shipping Deputy Ministry (SDM) launched a process to facilitate crew changes during the Covid-19 pandemic at the beginning of May.
Crew changes for vessels are possible in Cyprus provided certain conditions are met. The relevant decrees issued by the Ministry of Health also permit the long-term stay in anchorage of vessels, including cruise ships (warm lay-up).
Earlier this week, the Cyprus Shipping Chamber, whose members employ more than 60,000 seafarers, expressed disappointment that, despite repeated appeals and proposals from the international shipping industry, there is a delay from governments around the world in finding practical solutions to the issue of crew changes.
The chamber called on all governments to follow the example of Cyprus so that a viable solution can be found to the crisis.
Crewing specialist efforts
Boutique firm CF Sharp Crew Management currently tops Intermanager’s ‘Maritime Champions Club’ league that demonstrates the efforts the industry is taking on repatriating crews.
Singapore and Manila-based CF Sharp Crew Management said it brought home more than 9,000 crew members over the past three months, with some 1,000 others due back soon.
The company is using a combination of commercial and charter flights and cruise vessels to bring crew members from cruise and cargo ships to the Philippines, where quarantine measures and required virus testing is arranged.
“We were quick to identify the importance of bringing crew home. Starting as early as March 19, we began bringing our seafarers home. Working with our cruise industry clients, our first charter flight arrived in Manila on April 1st, and was followed by 14 more over the coming weeks,” Roger Storey, Marketing Director of CF Sharp Crew Management, recalled.
“At the time every hotel in Manila had shut down and no facilities had been approved for quarantine by the Philippine Government’s Bureau of Quarantine (BoQ). Thanks to the 24 hours a day work of the Sharp Travel team, we were able to get numerous hotels approved for quarantine – both facility quarantine and stringent facility quarantine. Hotel rooms weren’t easy to come by but we worked hard to find them and I am pleased to report that, at the peak, we engaged more than 20 hotels and every crew member got a hotel room – and a single room at that!”
CF Sharp staff had to overcome many challenges including providing accommodation for staff that had to redo swab tests.
The company added that new crews who are due to join certain vessels are also undergoing swab tests to comply with all new pre-employment medical requirements, which now include having a ‘flu’ vaccination.
Data from the global ship management company V.Group shows that the company has facilitated 7,315 seafarers movements in the three months since March 17th.
The seafarers comprised 89 nationalities and were moved from 662 vessels. 1,879 seafarers were repatriated two weeks ago alone.
The cost of repatriation
As ship operators struggle to come up with solutions to repatriate crew, these measures are proving costly as well as tricky.
Henrik Jensen of Danica Crewing Services said that they recently placed a crew of 19 of Ukrainian and Filipino nationality on to a vessel and the necessary pandemic-related procedures cost some $10,000, which the shipowner had to cover.
The charges included Covid-19 PCR tests of all crew members, as well as additional local transport, hotel accommodation and food allowances.
”The price tag for the necessary Covid-19 precautions comes at a difficult time for the shipping industry in general but we are fortunate that the owners which Danica works with are all providing the necessary funds to get overdue crew off the vessels,” he said.
As explained, even though many ports allow crew changes now, there are a number of vessels in places where crew changes are not allowed or very difficult to carry out, resulting in the growing number of overdue crew members on these vessels.
Danica has experienced a doubling of applications from seafarers who are anxious to get back to sea as they have been home for a long time without an income and they are now experiencing financial distress, the company said.
“We are trying to get these two ends to meet and we have extremely busy days in our recruitment departments,” Jensen commented, adding that the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic will continue to disrupt the manning of vessels well into to 2021.
“The entire crew planning process is disrupted. Crew returning after a long period onboard want a longer vacation and will be reluctant to return to sea soon, which in turn impacts those onboard who are due to be relieved. It will take long time before we come back to a steady crewing scheduling,” he added.
Crewing after lockdown
Crewing specialist V.Group believes the industry needs to learn from the lessons arising from the Covid-19 pandemic in order to change the way it operates.
“Although our industry continues to be ravaged by the global impact of Covid-19, we think the time has come to look to the future. Collectively, we have all learned something and need to put this knowledge to good use in the future,” CEO Graham Westgarth, said.
Among the lessons learned cited by V.Group are that crew wellbeing must be a priority and that the importance of mental health is paramount.
Furthermore, communication and connectivity from the bridge to individuals at all levels is equally important enabling seafarers to reach out to their communities easier as well as the management.
Finally, V.Group believes that appreciation goes a long way, as expressing gratitude to seafarers for their efforts, especially during the lockdown period, proves to crews that they are valued and that their contribution is appreciated, fueling that sense of pride seafarers deservedly cherish.
Moving into the future, things are expected to change as a result of the coronavirus, especially when it comes to seafarer training, Jensen predicts.
Crew learning has transferred almost exclusively to online methods due to worldwide travel bans and quarantine restrictions imposed across the globe, and Jensen expects this trend to continue as shipping embraces digitalization to a greater extent.
“I think this will be the way forward for the maritime sector. This move was already happening but has been accelerated by the pandemic. There should be no difference in the standard of a seafarer who qualifies online and one who does so in person, and the cost savings for employers and seafarers are important at this difficult time.”
Even though the development is in its early stages and a lot more ground needs to be covered, the online approach is expected to bring a lot of benefits and flexibility for the cadets.