How to Provide Relief for Stranded Seafarers and Avoid Supply Chain Disruption

Watch the Seafarer Relief BreakbulkONE Show

(Global) Industry Leaders Weigh in on Solutions

By Gary Burrows

In the face of a global pandemic, Fr. Sinclair Oubre says there’s another illness that jeopardizes some 200,000 seafarers globally: sea blindness. 

Since the spread of the coronavirus, seafarers throughout the world have been trapped on their vessels, unable to come ashore or change crews, with some stranded aboard for more than a year. 

It’s a problem that has failed to receive attention, but with efforts from industry, and a recent Breakbulk 365 webinar, the issue is becoming more visible. 

“In any port city, people don’t realize they’re in a port town,” said Oubre, pastor, St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church and executive director of the Port Arthur International Seafarer’s Center, or PAISC. “They possibly see the ships, but will never be able to comprehend that on each of those ships are 23 to 26 human beings.” 

Global Issue 

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with policies and regulations of certain countries, seafarers have been unable to disembark the vessels they are working, turning what would normally be a four- to six-month contract for officers and able seamen to seven to nine months for rated crew into 12 to 15-month confinements. Additionally, new crews are often unable to board ships to start a new contract. 

An estimated 200,000 seafarers are impacted, Oubre said. 

“This issue of shore leave and crew change is universal. It’s very difficult on the international flag fleet and even our U.S. guys are suffering greatly for that.” He added he knew of one mariner quarantined on a Military Sealift Command ship since April. 

To Dennis Mottola, a global logistics consultant and former head of global logistics for Bechtel Corp., it’s a humanitarian issue, as well as a safety issue. Stranded mariners are physically and mentally fatigued. “These folks do very dangerous work,” and fatigue leads to mistakes and accidents. 

“We should all want to engage in this regardless of what we do, regardless of what side of the desk we sit on, and what role we have for involvement in international commerce,” he said. 

“If we have fatigued, tired and demotivated crew on board, it has severe consequences,” said Ulrich Ulrichs, CEO of BBC Chartering, who was not part of the webinar. “Productivity and efficiency will be low, and hazardous and unsafe situations could occur … our crews have done an outstanding job the last few months, both on board our vessels and chartered vessels.” 

Who’s to Blame? 

Oubre goes as far to say that it’s a case of “classic prejudice against seafarers.” He uses the example of airline crews versus vessel crews, in that airline workers are quickly ushered through expedited Customs service, while a mariner faces a more daunting process. 

The situation “has been a terrible failure of governments for flag countries because they don’t show a lot of interest in getting their citizens back,” he added. 

Thomas Damsgaard, long-time maritime executive, agreed. “There are protocols in place for the airline industry already. And what I don’t understand is why have we not taken a page from their playbook for our maritime seafarers?” 

He added that, with the airline industry struggling due to travel restrictions, providing mercy flights for stranded seafarers would actually benefit the airlines. 

Urlichs said BBC has chartered dedicated planes to get its crews home and back on board. 

Damsgaard also lays blame at the feed of the International Maritime Organization. “The IMO has failed miserably. It’s all bark and no bite at all from the IMO, which should have been stepping up to the plate here.” 

“The IMO seems like the logical organization and its member countries, to come together as one body to try to address this,” Mottola said. “It still boils down to countries changing their policies and regulations … that makes some of these restrictions difficult.” 

He was also blunt in his indictment of national governments that have failed to respond to this crisis. 

“I don’t have a lot of faith in government right now,” he admitted. “I don’t think they have served us well in many areas, and I don’t expect that they’re going to do that for our seafarers either.” 

Ulrichs said BBC has had issues getting port captains to the ports to support crew and local vendors during load and discharge. “That put even more pressure on the crew and vessels, although we also managed to hire some freelance port captains in certain ports and regions.” 

What to Do? 

Oubre noted that in Port Arthur, Customs and Border Protection and the Center for Disease Control are allowing seafarers to leave the ship if they are clean of the COVID-19 virus and if their company allows it. 

For those who can’t seamen centers like the PAISC will shop for seamen, provide them with calling cards, Internet hot spots, and other services. 

“I think we need to challenge the ship owners,” agreed Reiner Wiederkehr, CEO, Fracht USA. “I heard some of them don’t want to spend money on the visas for these poor guys. I think that’s wrong.” 

He emphasized that cargo owners can apply pressure on carriers and ask questions. “We can include some language into a booking,” he said. “Maybe they’ll want to implement a surcharge; they’re implementing surcharges for everything else, so maybe there’s a half-dollar per ton that you pay to ensure that these crews are taken care of, and their families.” 

Ulrichs emphasized that BBC is in close contact with vessels, owners and crew. “We all are really doing anything possible to keep any mental and physical issues to a minimum,” he said. 

Mottola said the industry needs to influence national regulators and port state controls. “In some cases, the port state control folks … from port to port apply rules differently. There’s a whole other level of frustration to deal with.” 

He said charters when booking cargo or a vessel, need to ask the owner, operator or carrier “what are you doing on behalf of the seafarers that are manning the ships?” 

“We’ve faced a lot of different restrictions all over the world, ”Urlichs said. “Each country, sometimes even each respective port have their own rules and regulations, so we had to adjust to those circumstances. General embarking/disembarking restrictions, quarantine regulations, lack of flights, transportation, accommodation ashore. We actually had more problems getting replacement crew on board than getting crews home.” 

He said the carrier has kept in close communication with owners and vessels. “We, as charterers, need to understand all the implications and find solutions where and when necessary. I think we have coped relatively well considering the circumstances.” 

Houston Seafarer Relief Effort 

Wiederkehr’s Fracht USA has joined with Schröder Marine Services CEO Jurgen Schröder and the Houston International Seafarer’s Center on an industry initiative to provide relief for seafarers arriving in Port Houston. 

Wiederkehr said the initiative is reaching out to every carrier they’re doing business with. “We are challenging them and hopefully there will be a bit more positive feedback from ship owners.” 

The seafarer’s center “has been close to my heart for 15 years or so,” Wiederkehr said from an office in the center during the webinar. While the center usually has about 300 seafarers at any one time, it was visited by only eight in July, he said. 

Much like Oubre’s efforts with PAISC, the Houston initiative will provide basic needs for the crew including shopping and other comforts. Further Wiederkehr said they plan to go on ships and speak with crew. “They haven’t seen another living soul other than their crewmates for a year, so they would love to have some engagement,” he said. 

Within the first few days, the initiative raised US$70,000. 

“We can make a difference. It’s not going to help get these guys home, but it helps them to have a chance to speak with their family more often with phone cards. It’s just a smaller difference to start with,” he added. 

Along with caring for seafarers’ mental health, Damsgaard also emphasized crews’ families as an important issue. “I think the crew agencies and owners should be held to a higher standard making sure that the crewmembers’ families are being taken care of,” he said. 

He likened the current circumstances to piracy in the Gulf of Aden with the risk and needs similar. 

“The crisis that we are going through now is being referred to as a war situation,” he said. “What have we done with ships that have gone into the Arabian Gulf during the war? With war premiums and bonuses and what have you. 

“I don’t think you can buy yourself out of this … but I think that if we’re calling this a war situation, I think there would be more tools in our toolbox to more efficiently handle and manage it,” he added. 

Oubre noted the circumstances are similar to post-9/11. “You had a lot of facilities that decided to deal with security by keeping seafarers on board and couldn’t get anything sorted out. It’s taken us 19 years to finally get seafarers access to shore leave guaranteed in U.S. waters.” 

Damsgaard said that, like countries’ initial response to the pandemic with “mercy flights” to get citizens back home, should be extended and apply to these displaced seafarers. 

“Countries seemed to have forgotten their seafarer citizens in this sense,” he said. “I think it is upon them to really engage a lot more … to make it sure they can evacuate some of their citizens back and also sending new citizens back that they can recrew ships so that we can keep these supply chains going.” 

Firing Blanks 

Besides being a humanitarian and safety issue, Mottola said the crews’ plight is a commercial issue as well. 

For a carrier industry already struggling from a long-term downturn in business, COVID-19’s impact on the supply chain has made matters worse. 

“Supply chains have failed and we have seen that with this pandemic,” said Damsgaard. He added the crew change issue is particularly keen to supply chains as nearly 90 percent of the world’s cargo moves by ocean. 

Supply chains that have been tuned to low inventories fed just in time by weekly sailing frequencies have been disrupted with blanked sailings and bumped cargo. And like the rest of the globe during the disruptions from the pandemic, seafarers are another class of essential workers that are derided and abused by a public ungrateful for their risk and sacrifice to keep the global – and local – economies functioning. 

Damsgaard painted a clear picture of the situation. “We are so dependent on maritime and transportation,” he said. “We welcome the ships into the ports with open arms, we are dependent on the cargoes, but we are treating the seafarers that are making this happen, who are going out of their way, being on board ships for 12 months, and we are treating them like third-class citizens. 

“If the maritime leg of the supply chain stopped one night, our whole society would shut down beyond what it has been with the pandemic." 

READ MORE: Fracht USA, Schröder Marine Services launch COVID-19 relief fund 

Gary Burrows, a 40-year publishing industry veteran, has covered the supply chain industry since 1988 and has served as editor of b2b logistics publications for more than 30 years.