Seafarers Stuck at Bay: Chartered Plane on the Plate in the Black Swan Event - By Bhavana Kothari

The sea is swelled with numerous Bulk Carriers, Ore Carriers, Chemical and Oil tankers carrying Goods and Substances with a standard 20-25 crew members onboard each vessel. The ports in India are not so well equipped to harbour a giant vessel on its port and the problem lies here. Many Mariners despite months of financial turmoil are waiting for their next call to go onboard even during this tough lockdown phase routing every country with sealed borders.

Beginning of the Crisis

It is true every country is working hard and has been taking precautions in safeguarding their nationals, which is the primary duty of the state but what about the stranded ones who are due for their sign off Worldwide?

Initially, IMO (International Maritime organization) issued a circular letter on March 02, 2020, providing operational considerations for managing pandemic led cases on board prepared by WHO, to that the Directorate General of Shipping, Mumbai considering the gravity of the situation and isolation being the only way to stay uninfected, issued maritime advisory on new coronavirus detailing compliance requirements by the stakeholders with instructions to the Seafarers to avoid availing shore leave and to use the same only in exigencies with necessary precautions. Also, Seafarers who have traveled abroad to follow self-quarantine for 14 days on their immediate arrival to India. But despite the halt, the Maritime industry was the only economic jolt operating during the pandemic to deliver necessities.

On March 16, 2020, the International Maritime Federation tweeted that there will be no crew change on merchant ships in 15 countries[ii]. With the priority of protecting the Seafarers, at the first place, the shipping companies found it necessary to protect seafarers by suspending the exchange of crew as this lessens the number of social interactions they need to have and secondly, the rapid changes to global travel poses risk of stranding seafarers in transit making them unable to leave their locations or get sufficient assistance, to this effect contracts of their seafarers was extended by a month in April to keep the crew safe while maintaining normal possible port operations.

How is it Going on Board Sweetheart?

As a wife to a Seafarer, I receive a call home with a fine voice brilliantly showing everything is oceanic on board, but the truth is Shipping experiences have often caused trauma and medical issues to the Seafarers, where some leave the job, others become seasick and develop weakness from the episodes. Mr. Graham Wrath, CEO of V. Group has shown concern on the mental wellbeing issues of the seafaring community which develops due to prolonged periods of service on board. Not just this, when a Seafarer boards the vessel, there is a plan on his mind, that after six months as per the contract, I will be on land, but this situation, like right now, is ensuring nothing. No returns, no tickets, and no callbacks from husbands, fathers, brothers or sisters, even mothers in fact, since the females are a part of the merchant's vessels too. It jeopardizes the safety of individuals and potentially the vessel they sail on.

What’s going on?

With the unprecedented lockdown in place, 40,000 Indian crew members were unable to reach abode meanwhile internally between the trunk calls and emails an alliance of leading companies consisting of 1500 vessels and 70,000 Seafarers, which included D/s Norden, Grieg Star, Reederei Nord, Dynacom, Group, Wilhelmsen Ships Service Columbia Ship Management, etc. called on the Governments around the world to make interim arrangements for crew changes which were at a big halt. At present, 100,000 Seafarers are effectively stuck at sea, while they need to rotate on and off every month following employment contracts and international conventions, including the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC), because of the global patchwork of pandemic policies preventing them from entering countries, transiting through non-destination countries or finding flights way back home while over 1.6 million Seafarers keep merchant fleet running. The alliance members gave the idea of collective crew changes at a small number of identified ports with port state assistance ensuring minimal risks like in Singapore, Houston, Rotterdam, Gibraltar, Jebel Ali, Fujairah, Hong Kong, and Shanghai but restrictions kept plans at bay.

At present, Singapore, a major port of operation for a crew change, is under extended lockdown till June -1, whereby the Singaporean leader has proposed the idea of lifting the lockdown with circuit breaker measures in four phases. Major hub ports are operating only for their respective nationals adopting sweeping measures which include shutting airports, travel restrictions, and sealing borders. Condition is, whether you sign off or sign on, even if the airports are open, the concerned Seafarer will have to go through a compulsory period of quarantine as per new norms, company, or owners will have no control over the quality of quarantine facility.

Instructions from Maritime Bodies

The International Transport Workers Federation and the International Maritime Employer’s Council (IMEC) urged the governments to follow the IMO guidelines issued on crew change and to prioritize repatriation of crew members having served the longest time at sea by mid-June, also asking shipowners to increase bandwidth and internet access for Seafarers to get in touch with their families, however, failure to abide by the deadline, could negatively impact on the commercial viability of ship operations. To assist governments to put in place coordinated procedures, to facilitate the safe movement of seafarers, a 12-step Plan has been issued by the IMO to 174 member states, providing a roadmap to free seafarers from their COVID-19 lockdown allowing appropriate exemptions for them to join or leave ships. This has been advanced by a broad coalition of Seafarer’s unions, and International Shipping Industry associations with inputs from Airline Industry representatives, International Organizations, and the Insurance sector to provide a comprehensive blueprint of how governments can facilitate crew changeovers and resolve safety concerns throughout the entire process. Center is the harbinger in this longitude concerning political decisions as for matters relating to Airlines, Airports, and immigration clearances. The Seafaring community is placing reliance on the Government for the protection of their human rights and well-being.

Plans or Plane on the Plate

The Hindu reported that the Seafarers might return to India in three phases[iii]. But how? They are no cross-border workers; it is the high sea crisis! Yes! Beyond the nautical inching. You got that right! Recently, Home Ministry granted permission to various Shipping Corporations for using chartered flights to bring back stranded seafarers. It permitted Costa Cruise Company to repatriate 414 Indian seafarers stuck on cruise ships in Italy but the same to be done with adherence to strict guidelines by the Ministry of Health and Family welfare and DGCA.

With the deadline set by ITF and IMEC the Shipowners, Managers and Crewing companies are under immense pressure to put the Chartered flight plan into action to relieve the Seafarers but the same is just an effort and it is subject to the following requirements:

Permission from the Indian authorities to allow chartered flights in and out of India.

Permission from the receiving country to allow transit/joining/signing off from ships.

Permission to allow the seafarers to join without any quarantine regulations.

Visa requirements of the receiving countries-to allow seafarers to arrive on ‘ok to board’ as the Consulate in India are closed for issuing visas. Well, adding on to that, lack of a standard operating procedure for a crew change at foreign ports is a stumbling block towards implementing the chartered flight plan. Therefore, Shipping Giants have to be vigilant in informing the ports about the ETA of the vessel, so that a crew change solution is met and relief is provided on time before they go haywire port to port stranding for months without any call from the ship-liner to be brought back home.

Requirement being, there have been instances where some Seafarers need immediate medical attention but they have not been allowed to sign off in their own home countries, humanity calls for serious attention and their plight has to be addressed with all expediency.

Shipping Giants like Anglo-Eastern have made their contribution towards the PM-CARES fund to stand in solidarity with the Government of India, in this health crisis, to this, the Government needs to play a proactive role in rooting a solution towards the Mariners.

Families await the answer to the question, “How long will they be kept stranded?


[i] Ms. Bhavana C Dhoundiyal Kothar.

[ii] Sri Lanka, Bangladesh (Foreign National Not allowed), UAE, Iran, Norway, India (Foreign National not allowed), Australia, Panama, Italy, New Zealand, Salvador, Morocco, Israel, Qatar, Kuwait.

[iii] Jagriti Chandra, Coronavirus| Seafarers may return home in three phases, THE HINDU (Apr. 17, 2020, 00:19 AM).

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