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Where is my Shore leave??

Covid-19 has recently celebrated its 2nd birthday and is growing and diversifying at a phenomenal pace around the world. In these 2 years, there would not be a single sole in the whole world, whose life, it has not touched in some way.

Seafarers were one the few unlucky ones who were given the 1st screen raiser of what was in store in future for the whole world.

In this blog we will try and list out in various ways, how Covid-19 as touched and changed the seafarer’s world.

1) Training -Training is one area where seafarers had to have major shift where all the trainings be it STCW or value added switched over to the online mode. Even though it may be temporary measure until situation returns to normalcy seafarers had to complete courses online which were 1) Alien earlier to covid and 2) with many technical glitches-it was stressful as these courses would decide their employability

2) Crew changes:This topic commands a separate blog for it self as

a. The crew changes were so rare during the peak that some seafarers were completing close to 18 months onboard. Few masters had to put the foot down and divert vessels for crew change after which the crew changes actually started happening. We all owe to those masters who put their foot down for the safety of the crew and the vessel. Some Charterers came out to be not very cooperative and did not allow deviations for crew changes.

b. Quarantine was another challenge for the crewing agencies, as the crew changes had to be completed during the vessel’s short port stays and mandatory quarantines were almost everywhere across the world, both in the country of departure and in the port of joining. The amount Rt-PCRs the seafarers would do was maddening and still few seafarers would mysteriously test positive just before boarding the vessel in the port of joining.

c. Travel routes: When the International flights started-Governments created something called a bubble where flight could be flown between those countries only. There were no commercial flights and companies had to charter complete aircraft to transport crew. some cruise companies also used their own vessels for bringing the seafarers back home after long duration onboard without any business. Doha (Qatar) proved to be a big boon for seafarer travel as Doha was a hub airport and Qatar government made all possible arrangements for seafarers to be comfortable. They went to the extent of making a special seafarers lounge and making it completely free.

3) Certification/paper work: Like training, certification was also switched to online mode with blanket extensions and short-term licenses. The whole process of certification both company requirements and STCW were completely thrown out of balance, till some measures were put in place to ensure due diligence for placing seafarers onboard. After all ,the trading of the vessels cannot be stopped right…😉 ,and seafarers have to be certified for P&I covers.

4) Vessel quarantine-As mentioned earlier even after humongous efforts in performing crew changes with utmost care, some seafarers were tested positive onboard the vessels as all the vessel were tested for Covid patients during arrival. In such unfortunate incidents, the vessel was completely quarantined for some time up to 2 weeks till all seafarers tested negative and the vessel was allowed to resume cargo. There were some instances were seafarers who were sick were also not allowed to disembark at port for medical facilities-fearing spread of covid through the sick seafarer.

5) Manning requirements-nationality preference: Covid-19 also changed the manpower scenario changing the preference of nationalities onboard the vessels. We understand there were charter party clauses with preferred nationalities. Some nationalities, greatly benefitted by this arrangement, however majority of the nationalities suffered.

6) Shore leave: This topic is the crux of this blog and we feel the most important negative point of the Covid episode. The whole mental health of the seafarer depends on the intermittent breaks he/she enjoys albeit short ones which keep the seafarers to go on till the end of their tenures. However, this liberty being snatched from them had a domino effect in their mental state and hence their overall performance and the risk the vessels were put to, because of the not so prime state of mind of the seafarers operating the vessels. With no shore leave and the tenures without an visible end, seafarers were literally pushed to the limits where, some Masters as mentioned above realized this and took corrective actions. Even at the time of writing the blog, even though some restrictions have been relaxed, shore leave is still a distant dream for seafarers onboard.

7) Stores/spares: With air travel restricted connections of stores and spares also become very difficult and vessels were running on minimum spares which put the ships staff on additional vigil and unnecessary efforts so vessels do not stop for the want of spares.

8) Family at home/communication: With Covid spreading at an alarming rate, seafarers onboard were very concerned for the family more so if they learn some family member has been affected. In the early covid period-the patients were kept in institutional quarantine with no one able to visit the patients. Seafarers were totally helpless in providing any support to the family physically as they were unable to go home.

9) Financial: All the above points we discussed of the seafarers onboard, however seafarers ashore were also undergoing enormous stress as they were not able to join the vessels, seafarers who were having high EMIs had to join the vessels to continue paying their EMIs and were facing defaults. Also with preferred nationalities changing, the effect of unemployment was even more prominent.

10) Value of seafarers in the supply chain: Last but not the least-The maritime industry displayed some kind of ignorance towards seafarers and their 100’s of pleas to the industry as a whole and governments. For the people who ensure 90% of the trade is done efficiently, the treatment meted to them to say the least was pathetic.

To Summarize, the phrase seafarers are essential workers was only in the letter and missed in the spirit of the maritime industry. These were the class of the people who were out of sight working silently hence were placed comfortably out of mind. The most crucial thing denied being, their shore leave and the break from the routine of the ships. We urge all the industry stalwarts and the governments to make provisions for commencing shore leave as you have allowed everything including cricket matches to be conducted.

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