No Industry was prepared or spared when the COVID-19 Pandemic hit the world. It brought along closure of production, businesses, borders and untold suffering and deaths worldwide. International Trade and Shipping were immediately affected by the disruptions in supply chains, closure of ports and borders. The many cases of infections onboard Cruise Ships brought into sharp focus the practice of registering ships at flags of convenience registries. Additionally, the fall in crude oil prices coupled with other developments in Shipping such as the advent of the IMO 2020 low Sulphur regime with effect from 1 January 2020 brought unprecedented problems and challenges to the Industry.
Ships continued to sail but soon ran into problems which when Ports refused to receive ships in their ports, imposed quarantines, crews could not be signed off. Cases of infection were found on board ships, and in the case of Cruise Ships, they were at an alarming magnitude.
Cases such as the Ruby Princess in Australia and Diamond Princess in Japan where hundreds of the passengers and crew were infected by Covid-19 on board brought into sharp focus how the Industry was unprepared to deal with the Pandemic. As countries refused to allow the Cruise Ships to dock and disembark, the infections on board the Ships grew. Even in mid-July 2020, cases of infection onboard ships are still being found. The Suezmax crude oil tanker Eco Beverly Hills is being held in quarantine at the port of Castellón, Spain after members of its crew were reported to have symptoms of COVID-19.
Moving into July 2020, the effects of the Pandemic continue to reverberate. Ship Managers play a crucial role in the Industry, they deal with Commercial and Operational aspects of running Ships for Owners. The Ship Managers main task and challenge were to ensure that ships continued to sail and as Mark O’Neil, CEO of Columbia Shipmanagment said that the propellers kept turning safely.
Mark explained that Ship Managers had to “improvise, adapt, overcome”, borrowing a phrase from Clint Eastwood in the film Heartbreak Ridge. In this regard, the Ship Managers had to be flexible and undertake robust and proactive planning, use technology and communication as key elements to go through the Pandemic. The most important element, according to him was to maintain a real focus on people and exercise strong, clear leadership.
Olav Nortun the Chief Executive Officer of Thome Ship Management highlighted the Ship Manager’s role in dealing with the Pandemic:
“Ship Managers faced the same issues and challenges as Owners / their clients. The Ship Manager is responsible for the crew it employs running Ships’, support staff in its global offices and the Vessels managed. By far the biggest challenge though was being able to carry out crew changes. This affected all Ship Managers and Owners with various trade bodies, the unions and the IMO calling on the world’s governments to recognize crew as key workers so they could disembark from vessels and be repatriated at the end of their contracts.”
The crew onboard ships have been badly affected in more ways than one. On top of being owed salaries for substantial periods, they also find that they cannot sign off and make their way home. Certain countries only allowed crew changes of its nationals.
Repatriation of crew requires Owners to navigate geopolitics of the Pandemic. For instance, the major cruise line, Carnival Cruise Line’s more than 26,000 crew members have been sent home from Cruise Line’s 26 ships. The process of returning crew home has included sending ships to Northern Europe, the Mediterranean, South Africa, India, Indonesia, and the Philippines. The final stages are to repatriate thousands of its crew who are nationals of more than 25 Caribbean and Latin America countries.
According to Henrik Jensen the Managing Director of Danica Maritime Services: ”The complexity of the many factors which has to come together to make a crew change possible and that things change all the time.”This requires both the Ship Manager and Owners to be flexible as Henrik says further:“We are and have been very agile and explore every option for crew changes including looking at ports along the vessels route and if we find any port suitable for crew changes then discuss with owners if a deviation is possible and feasible. We request joining crew members to enter into self-isolation and otherwise prepare them to join on short notice as soon as an opportunity for a crew change comes up.”
Martin Springer the Managing Director of BSM Cruise Services a division of Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement (BSM) highlighted a case they handled for a Cruise Ship:
“Once ports around the world started to close, our customer, the German tour operator Phoenix Reisen, immediately offered all passengers the option to fly back to their home countries or to return with the vessel. This situation however changed by the minute, as new information came in about port closures and travel restrictions worldwide.”
According to Kishore Rajvanshy the Managing Director of Fleet Management, its FLEET’s current total tally for crew change since travel restrictions came into place stands at 3,228 worldwide, out of which 1065 were using charter flights, with many more planned down the line. And during certain periods Fleet assisted owners to make an average of more than 100 crew changes per day.
The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) estimates as of mid-June 2020 that there are about 300,000 seafarers beyond their original contract and working aboard ships due to the ongoing crew change crisis. An equal number of unemployed seafarers are waiting to join them who are ashore, making an estimated 600,000 seafarers who are affected by COVID-related travel restrictions and other government policies that inhibit crew change.“300,000 seafarers are trapped working aboard these vessels, and another 300,000 are facing financial ruin at home, desperate to relieve these ships and start earning wages again. Governments are the biggest barrier to resolving the growing crew change crisis,” said ITF General Secretary Stephen Cotton. “Governments must act before we see more people die, or worse – a major maritime disaster. Urgent action is required,” said Dave Heindel, chair of the ITF Seafarers Section.
Matt Dunlop, Group Director HSEQ & Technical, at V.Group has voiced concern that the prolonged stress on the crew can create a dangerous mix for the ships still at sea: “According to data from the IMO, 80 per cent of incidents occurring at sea are due to ‘human error’. Poor mental health, fatigue and stress can all affect seafarers in the course of their daily work. These factors can make the difference between safe transit and a major incident.”As individuals retreat to their cabins to talk with their families, they can become more isolated and their wellbeing suffers further, especially if they receive bad news from home and are unable to help. The paralysing of air transport, the closing of borders, imposed periods of quarantine and major economic disruption have all resulted in crews being ship bound for unacceptable periods.
He adds that Owners need to pay attention to crew wellbeing as poor physical and mental health has the potential to jeopardize the Ships, crew themselves and have a direct knock-on effect on their families.
Fleet Crew’s mental health
Robert Hedley of Greystoke Ship Management said that one of the very important lessons learnt in dealing with the Pandemic is not to neglect crew welfare:
“Always remember that your crew are your greatest assets. We have seen that, in the past, many Owners, Managers and Crewing Agencies have taken their seafarers for granted. These are real people, not just names on a crew list or manifest.”
Olav Nortun the Chief Executive Officer of Thome Ship Management highlighted that Ship Operations have also be impacted by supply chain disruptions and lockdowns:
“There has been significant disruption to the vessel supply chain in terms of spare parts, machinery servicing, limited dry dock and repair facilities. Surveyors have not been able to visit ships to perform, audits, surveys and inspections and so alternative methods have had to be employed to overcome this.”
The Ship Managers assisted seafarers to better cope with mental health issues in the face of the pandemic, with their own programmes and schemes.
Remote communications are essential in Shipping, this allows the Ships to communicate with its shore management, ports, agents and parties essential to its operation. It also allows the crew to communicate with their families. The Pandemic has made smooth communications crucial. Both the Ship Managers and Owners employed technology to facilitate communication, real-time updates and coordination with the Crew onboard, themselves and other parties.
Olav Nortun the Chief Executive Officer of Thome Ship Management explains that the communications involved are-
- Remote crew briefings to Masters and Chief Engineers and other crew.
- Preventive Measures Practices – Procedures in place for onboard and meeting external parties including the development of an Outbreak Management Plan.
- Complete PPE for all seafarers
- Logging of health conditions daily – taking temperature twice daily, reporting of symptoms if any.
- Daily contact with the vessel – daily contact with vessels for possible issues including addressing crew concerns.
- Remote audits, surveys and inspections
- Emergency Preparedness including various drill scenarios (including ‘suspected cases”) onboard.
Recovery management strategies for post-pandemic planning.
Actions by States
One key role of Ship Managers is to facilitate crew changes. Seafarers are still not yet classified as Key Workers in many countries, meaning they are unable to embark or disembark ships due to national travel restrictions. This has led to increasing numbers of the crew onboard ships who have overrun their contracts and are currently stranded on ships. The crew at the shore, waiting to start their tours of duty cannot board their ships. Without crew to replace seafarers onboard ships many may be unable to sail. Ships facilitate 90% of global trade and an inability to facilitate crew change has the potential to cause a logjam to supply chains that have proven so resilient during the COVID-19 pandemic. Countries opened up by piecemeal.
With effect from 26 June 2020, Singapore allowed crew changes under stringent procedures established by the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA). Other countries allowed crew changes but this development proceeded piecemeal. India implemented protocols for crew changes, and once implemented, Fleet Management Limited has arranged crew changes for over 432 seafarers aboard 34 vessels in 12 ports across India.
A significant breakthrough occurred at the International Maritime Virtual Summit on Crew Changes Summit had been convened by the United Kingdom on 9 July 2020. The following statement was issued at the Summit:“Seafarers’ tours of duty cannot continue to be extended and need to be kept to a duration of less than 12 months, as set out by the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) 2006 … Apart from the humanitarian and crew welfare concerns, and issues of regulatory compliance, there is an increasing risk fatigue and mental health issues could lead to serious maritime accidents.”The significant outcome from the Summit is that 13 countries ie Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Indonesia, Netherlands, Norway, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom and the United States of America, agreed to recognize seafarers as key workers.
The United Kingdom Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said at the Summit: “It is unacceptable that there remain thousands of people stranded at ports around the world and we owe it to them and their families to change things. Today marks a new chapter for seafarers and alongside our international partners we are taking, a stand to end the bureaucracy preventing men and women around the world from returning home.”
It is clear in dealing with the Pandemic and its effects that Ship Managers and the Industry had to rely on remote handling of operations through online methods. This should be second nature in the Industry as crew and ships spend significant periods at sea. Issues of crew welfare, contingency planning and being agile and flexible came to the fore and certainly became more urgent than ever.
Olav Nortun the Chief Executive Officer of Thome succinctly summarized the lessons learnt from dealing with the Pandemic as follows:
“The future for ship management post-COVID-19 is sustainable as we have demonstrated that even during a world-wide pandemic, which at one stage had around one-fifth of the world’s population in lockdown, Ship Managers still effectively managed their vessels to ensure that countries got their essential supplies. Ship Managers made sure vessels still made their port calls and delivered medicines, fuel and food supplies so countries did not run out of essentials. All this against a backdrop of uncertainty with crews working well beyond their stipulated contracts, in some instances, due to worldwide government’s restrictions.”
First Published in The Maritime Executive (Published with the consent of Mr Philip Teoh & The Maritime Executive)