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Shipmanagers focus on crew morale as borders remain closed

While crew wait for high-level officials to convince governments to open their airports and borders to allow free movement of seafarers amid the coronavirus pandemic, shipmanagers have been trying to keep morale high by additional bonding activities such as games, barbecues and training

A prolonged period of contract extensions will lead to a significant rise in mental health issues and raise risks for vessel safety

SHIPMANAGERS are trying to boost morale of crew stuck on board ships indefinitely beyond their contracts, given that more than two-thirds of the world is restricting travel to limit the spread of the deadly coronavirus.

To combat stress and anxiety and promote well-being, shipmanagers have introduced measures focused on extra activities such as games and competitions or having barbecues. Most have allowed free calls home with increased broadband so that crew can keep in touch with loved ones. Access to helplines for counselling and advice and to round-the-clock medical staff is also on offer. 

Besides keeping active with some form of exercise, the crew welfare charity Iswan has also recommended quiet time, for prayer and meditation, inviting seafarers to draw on strengths. Limiting news consumption was also encouraged in the face of the invisible threat.

Singapore-based Thome Group, which provides full technical management to about 200 ships, has some 5,500 crew at sea at the moment, 11% of whom are now on overdue contracts. This will increase to 18% by the end of May.

Chief executive Olav Nortun told Lloyd’s List that extended time on board will be a challenge. 

“Fatigue risk is definitely there,” he said, and the company is carrying out regular health checks and running drills so that crews are able to manage the situation.

“To keep the crew occupied and take their minds off the crisis, we’ve arranged a different kind of weekly activity with rewards at the end of it, such as photo competitions, best effort in maintaining Covid-19 preparedness, or best workout session,” the executive said.

“It’s all about engagement, reaching out to them.”

For now, a positive takeaway is that port delays and fewer inspections actually lessens the stresses faced by the crew, he noted.

V. Group’s director for health and safety Matt Dunlop, in a recent BIMCO webinar, said that crews understand the situation and are coping, although that could change in a few weeks time, if the contracts are extended further. 

“Prolonged periods at sea significantly increases mental well-being issues of seafarers and jeopardises the safety of the vessels they sail on,” he said. The company manages 600 ships.

“Governments need to adopt policies to allow movements of seafarers,” he said, adding that progress is being made for an industry repatriation alliance, although it is just a concept at this stage.

Safety concerns

Human Rights at Sea, a UK-based charity, said it has been receiving feedback from seafarers, with at least nine crew members overdue for relief who are "fatigued, both mentally and physically, and under enormous psychological pressure to safely execute their shipboard responsibilities".

The common threads of concern besides mental exhaustion and safety on board, focuses around fears about being stranded, unable to get home to support their families, according to the statement. Depression may be setting in for some.

One seafarer, who was not identified, said that he had been on board for six months already, two months beyond his usual contract term. 

Despite calls by the shipping industry to designate seafarers as key workers, exempt from travel restrictions during this global health crisis, no decision has yet been taken and there is no clear and consistent approach. Even within a country, rules differ from state to state, posing immense challenges for logistics operations.

Even if seafarers can get to airports in their home countries, onward travel may be difficult. 

Discussions regarding repatriation are ongoing, said a spokesperson at the International Maritime Organization. Its secretary-general Kitack Lim recently issued a statement in which he said the inability to resupply or repatriate crews concerned him greatly.

The IMO has appealed to governments to take a pragmatic approach.

Ports open up slowly

Some governments have responded, slowly opening up ports, even if only for nationals, but it is a rapidly changing landscape in which a second wave of infections may again block any movements. 

China is stepping up crew change efforts, while India’s government has provided some relief, allowing “controlled” crew changes. That means testing during sign-in and sign-off and transit passes being issued with fixed routes and time validity. 

South Korea, in an emailed statement to Lloyd’s List, said that it was allowing all seafarers, irrespective of nationality, to freely move within its territory, provided they undergo screening and quarantine.  

“If other countries follow in the footsteps of this approach, the collective and concerted global actions will surely help to win the fight against the coronavirus crisis.” 

According to Thome, it has managed to make some crew changes in Hong Kong, Singapore, Gibraltar, Houston and some Chinese ports for Chinese nationals. Philippines, where the majority of its crew are from, is only partially open.

Repatriation will naturally bump up costs to operate the vessels, said Mr Nortun, but this depends on how long quarantines will last, how long hotels will be needed for and how much the flights will cost.

“We can’t repatriate everyone at the same time” for operational reasons, he said, noting that the industry working together for a common goal was a good thing.

Hong Kong-based bulker operator Pacific Basin said it lobbied for disembarkation restrictions to be lifted at ports due to the significant operational challenges it posed. Not all its crew were happy about the uncertainty in their relief caused by the government restrictions.

Unified approach

Fleet Management, also based in Hong Kong, said its monthly average crew change numbers were 1,600 for Singapore, 600 for Hong Kong and 400 for Houston.

The industry needed a unified and consistent crew change protocol, according to managing director Kishore Rajvanshy, who stressed that mental health was the biggest concern.

For China Navigation, part of the Swire Group, its monthly crew changes are 270 and some of its crew have already exceeded their maximum contracted tour duration. Its usual hubs are Dubai, Singapore, Istanbul, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Pusan and Tokyo.

Cash advances could help seafarers ride out the difficult time, as a way of reducing some of the stress, it said.

Additional reporting by Vincent Wee in Hong Kong

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