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Distress signal: Stuck on a never-ending cargo voyage in a pandemic

Distress signal: Stuck on a never-ending cargo voyage in a pandemic
Kate Whitehead 4 Mat 2020

Forced to remain at sea to keep global trade flowing, thousands of seafarers are waiting for a chance to return home. But as stress and fatigue mount, who will let them disembark?

When Captain Bejoy Kannan boarded the oil tanker China Dawn on December 1, 2019, he expected the job to be much like any other during his 25-year career at sea. He would work hard, do his time and likely be home before his 4-month contract ended.

But coronavirus restrictions have meant that “there are 7 of us who have exceeded our contract,” says Kannan, speaking by phone from his ship in the South Atlantic Ocean. “We are stuck at sea, we are prisoners at sea.”

Sailing from Australia to South Africa in mid-March, Kannan and 6 of his crew expected to be relieved and fly back home to their families, but 4 days before the China Dawn reached Port Elizabeth, he received the news that South Africa had banned entry to seafarers. Three days later, his native India went into lockdown and all flights were canceled.

“We have nowhere to go,” he says. “The company was trying its best to take us off, but where will we get the relief, where will they let us off?”

The pressures kept mounting. From Port Elizabeth the ship sailed to Brazil, where it was expected to load cargo, presenting another challenge – were the dock workers coronavirus-free? From the deck, Kannan and his crew observed that no one was wearing a face mask, nor were they practicing social distancing.

Captain Bejoy Kannan has been at sea since December 1.

Captain Bejoy Kannan has been at sea since December 1. Photo: Captain Bejoy Kannan

Kannan stood his ground and refused to let anyone on board while he contacted his ship’s manage­ment. This was a bold move. Chartering an oil tanker costs tens of thousands of dollars a day, so every hour lost eats into profits. Fortunately, the Wallem Group negotiated that only 8 men would come aboard, all wearing face masks and gloves, but “[the pilot] was touching things on the ship,” Kannan says.

“We were worried that if the gloves were infected, they might infect some of the equipment. We’ve been checking the crew’s temperatures daily.”

As the head of his household in India, Kannan feels unable to protect his elderly parents. His crew are also worried about their families and Kannan does his best to reassure them and keep up morale. He speaks in a calm, measured tone, but the strain is apparent – he has an infection in his left eye, perhaps the result of stress, and has been speaking to the fleet’s psychologist.

Sailing to Singapore, Kannan plans to divert the ship to India to allow disembarkation of Indian nationals. If that is not permitted, “very soon we are coming to the stage where we have to go on strike,” he says. “People want the cargo but what about the sea­farers? Everyone talks of the doctors, the army and the police, but I don’t think people even know we exist.”

Captain Bejoy Kannan (left) and colleagues on board the container ship China Dawn last month.

Captain Bejoy Kannan (left) and colleagues on board the container ship China Dawn last month. Photo: Captain Bejoy Kannan

There are more than 50,000 merchant vessels in the world, including 5,150 container ships, each with an average crew of 22 – making for a work­force of well over 1 million people, responsible for deliver­ing 90% of the world’s goods stocking our shops. These men (and some women) are continuing to work 7 days a week through the pandemic, their contracts extended because they are unable to disembark their ships.

“We all recognize the heroism of the health workers,” says Bjørn Højgaard, chief executive of Anglo-Eastern Univan Group, a Hong Kong-based firm that manages about 600 vessels. “But the coronavirus has also meant the normal turnover of seafarers is not taking place, or is in limited numbers.”

Seafarers’ contracts range from 4 to 9 months, depending on rank. A ship’s master (or captain) usually has a 4-month contract, while lower-ranked seafarers can expect about 8 months. Anglo-Eastern has about 15,000 seafarers at sea, and if travel restric­tions continue, Højgaard estimates 23% of them will be on extended contracts by the end of May.

But the extended contracts and uncertainty are affecting the mental health of crew members.

“If people can’t get relief and go home, they will eventually burn out and be incapable of doing their jobs,” Højgaard says. “The longer this drags on without people being relieved, the more pressure will build up and, at some point, that pressure might boil over.”

There is a growing awareness of mental health in the maritime indus­try. A study by Yale University, published last October, spoke to 1,572 seafarers of different ranks around the world and found that, in the previous 2 weeks, 20% had contemplated suicide or self-harm, 25% had suffered depression and 17% had experienced anxiety. Key factors were violence and bullying, a lack of job satisfaction and not feeling valued.

We had an important Gulf of Aden transit coming up and had to take precautions against pirates in Somalia

- Captain Rajnish Shah, bulk carrier Tomini Destiny

“Then coronavirus hits and the stress level goes up – worry about getting infected, worry about family back home,” Frank Coles, chief executive of Wallem Group, says.

Coles tells of a Chinese captain who wanted to dis­embark at a Chinese port and threatened to discharge his cargo if he couldn’t go home. That captain was eventually persuaded to do 1 more voyage. Another captain, concerned about his crew getting infected, refused to allow Singaporean officials to board.

Captain Rajnish Shah has stood up for his crew, demand­­ing that their lives not be compromised for the sake of profit. When he boarded the bulk carrier Tomini Destiny on a 4-month contract on August 28 last year, the world was a very different place. An error surrounding his expec­ted relief meant he and some crew members were not able to disembark at the begin­ning of the year, but he took it in his stride.

“We had an important Gulf of Aden transit coming up and had to take precautions against pirates in Somalia,” Shah says.

He and his crew avoided the pirates, but there was more danger ahead. As the Tomini Destiny approached Chittagong port, in Bangladesh, Shah made plans with the ship’s owner for the cargo to be offloaded using trains, avoiding the need for dock workers. But when the ship reached port at the end of March, 60 local workers demanded to come on board.

“That was not acceptable, because the exposure risk to the crew was huge,” Shah says. “Bangladesh had also gone into lockdown.”

Captain Rajnish Shah intervened after feeling that his crew's concerns were being ignored in favor of commercial gain.

Captain Rajnish Shah intervened after feeling that his crew's concerns were being ignored in favor of commercial gain. Photo: Captain Rajnish Shah

A week-long stand-off ensued, during which the crew closed the hatches and rigged up razor wire to prevent access to the ship. Shah reached out to non-government organization Human Rights at Sea, requesting better protection for his crew. His determination paid off: on April 6, personal protective equipment (PPE) arrived and local workers used it while offloading the cargo.

The incident marked a critical point in the pandemic – a ship’s captain invoking “Master’s authority” under the international safety code in the interests of his crew, bringing him into conflict with the owners’ interests.

“This is the first time I’ve ever had to exercise Master’s authority over owners to protect my crew,” Shah says. “It’s unfortunate when the concerns of the crew are ignored for the sake of profit.”

Kishore Rajvanshy is managing director of Hong Kong-based Fleet Management, which manages about 520 ships. Before taking a management role, he was a seafarer and served as chief engineer.

“What keeps me awake at night is worrying how long this will last,” Rajvanshy says. “Eventually there has to be a way to relieve people.”

The firm is giving crew members who have contracts extended a 25% pay rise and an increased internet data allowance, so they can keep in contact with family. With the support of the charity Sailors’ Society, it launched a 24/7 helpline to offer advice and support.

“We’ve already had quite a number of people use the helpline,” Fleet’s Captain Randhir Mahadik says. “Our ships are multilingual, so the support is available in Mandarin, Tagalog, many Indian languages and others.”

It could be a turning point in addressing seafarers’ mental-health needs.

Rini Mathew, Fleet’s full-time clinical psychologist, offers one-on-one counseling for crews, but remote therapy can be challenging. Confidentiality is vital, but seafarers often have to take part by phone in a ship’s communal area, which means the captain must ask others to leave the space.

“And then there’s the challenge of the person on the vessel talking to a stranger who they can’t see,” Mathew says. “But often these people are reaching their threshold – they can’t take it any more, they need help.”

Problems can quickly escalate in the enclosed environ­ment of a ship, so Mathew usually offers a session every four days, rather than weekly.

If you work shifts 7 days a week for more than a year, you become fatigued. That’s when accidents happen

- Reverend Stephen Miller, Mission to Seafarers

Most of her sea-bound clients experience depression or anxiety, exacerbated by a sense of isolation and distance from home.

The longer the pandemic goes on and contracts are extended, the more serious fatigue becomes. A typical shift pattern might involve working from midnight until 4am, then 8 hours off, then working from noon to 4pm. Doing this 7 days a week for 6 to 9 months takes a toll. Go beyond that and tensions mount.

The Mission to Seafarers is a Christian welfare charity serving merchant crews around the world. It has operated in Hong Kong since 1863 and offers a friendly ear to visiting seafarers as well as international legal advice and coun­selling.

Reverend Stephen Miller, the mission’s regional director for East Asia, says: “If you work shifts 7 days a week for more than a year, you become fatigued, [suffer] sensory overload and your mind switches to some­thing else. That’s when accidents happen – collisions at sea, accidents on board.”

Coronavirus restrictions mean mission staff can no longer go aboard ships in Hong Kong, so instead they go as far as the gangplank to deliver newspapers, toiletries, snacks and entertainment such as pre-recorded football matches.

“It makes them feel more human if we can buy snacks from their home countries,” says Miller, whose mission is in touch with thousands of seafarers through Facebook and WhatsApp.

Tim Huxley, chairman of Hong Kong-based Mandarin Shipping, says seafarers should be seen as essential workers, and allowed on and off ships. That requires groundbreaking cooperation between immigration authorities, port medical departments and the International Maritime Organization – the United Nations body that oversees ship­ping.

“This virus is a great opportunity to initiate change and put in procedures to call on in future, because it will happen again,” Huxley says.

For Hammond, the solution is “ring-fenced global hub points” for the safe offload of crew, to keep global trade flowing.

“People would not get on a plane if they thought the pilot never got off,” says Wallem’s Coles. “But they are quite happy to let these [seafarers] sail around for months at a time.”

“If people want the shipping industry to survive, there should be an opportunity for us to get off and go home,” Captain Kannan says. “Don’t only think of commercial gain; spare a thought for us. We are tired and depressed and want to go home.”