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Coronavirus: Sailors tell of months stuck on ships

By Howard Mustoe and Sam Proffitt
BBC business reporters

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  • Coronavirus pandemic
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Seafarers across the world are stuck on their ships, spending months without shore leave as ports ban crew transfers.

While most are being paid and some are getting extra pay, they are doing their jobs without the expected breaks, often 12 hours a day and seven days a week.

Since March, many ports are refusing to allow crew changes or shore leave, meaning for some that a three-month contract becomes almost twice as long.

Most crew members say they've had contracts extended in the past, when illness or bad weather delays their relief crew. But mariners with long memories say a situation like this, with no end in sight, is unprecedented.

"We are all stuck out here and we don't know what to do," says an officer on a tanker vessel.

"Everybody's waiting as to what your home country will do. Only when the home country is ready to accept their own citizens, we can go home."

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The hardest part is not the length of time on board.

It's the fact that they don't know the length of time they'll spend on board

"We have been under pressure for quite some time. It takes a toll on your mental health. If you don't know what's going to happen it's more frustrating mentally on you," the officer says.

The BBC has interviewed crews on tanker vessels, container ships and cruise liners.

Most don't want to be named as they have not been authorised by their employers to speak to the media. While shipping is a critical industry for global trade, it's also one which faces many challenges - previously amid US-China trade tensions and now the economic effects of coronavirus.

Over the decades, the trend has been towards larger ships and smaller, cheaper crews in order to cut costs in a competitive market.

The tanker officer should have been on a three-month contract, but he will spend almost six on his ship. Once he does get home, he says he expects to be in quarantine for up to a month to help stop the spread of the virus.

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"On top of that, you will be worried you don't catch it, and if you do catch it you don't give it to your loved ones."

Before the prospect of quarantine, he needs a port that will let him off, and where there are flights home. If a planned flight is cancelled, he'll be put back on his vessel. Until then, he is stuck, and his company has no news for him.

A particular kick in the teeth was when his home country of India suspended the visas of the crew meant to relieve him, he said.

He was forced to sail away rather than take some shore leave to see his family.

Most officers will spend three to five months on a ship before they are relieved, and may then have the same amount of time as rest at home. For more junior crew, stints can be nine months, but with shore leave in between.

As well as not knowing when their contracts will end, a ban on shore leave is what makes the current situation particularly unpleasant, according to an officer on a container ship.

"Morale is quite low, especially because you can't go out ashore and without that by definition it's cabin fever," he says.

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"You're working all the time in the same environment, everyone's groggy, everyone wants to go home, people start making small mistakes and it gets you down. We are trying our best to get along with each other."

While longer time together is helping build some camaraderie, things are still hard, he says.

Without a break ashore, or a drink - his vessel is dry - "it's just Groundhog Day every single day."

His ship makes plenty of stops, which would usually mean plenty of opportunities to see a new city and have some respite. But many Asian ports now demand to see two weeks pass between stops to show that no crew have developed symptoms. It means he may not be able to leave for weeks.

For the ratings, more junior crew, it can be harder. A steward on his ship is creeping towards a year on board and still getting up at dawn to cook the crew meals.

Lockdown hasn't affected the maintenance necessary for running a ship and there's plenty to do for everyone, from navigational duties to maintaining fire safety gear and lifeboats.

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His company has given $1,000 (£802) to each ship to kit the crew out with any personal items they might need. But at about $40 per crew member, and because of the mark-up a ship's chandler (supplier) charges, it only stretches to basics like toothpaste, soap and razor blades. His employer didn't respond to a request for comment.

Most crew would like more information from their employers, and a little more effort from governments.

"I see a lot of repatriations - everything organised for holidaymakers - but for sailors it's basically nothing," said our container ship officer.

It's a familiar feeling for mariners, he said, "They call it sea blindness." About 95% of imports and exports for the UK are moved by sea. Yet the industry is low on the public agenda, he feels.

Safe procedures for crew changes would be a good place to start, he said. Some ports are showing early signs of starting this, he said, but the wait is still unknown.

Until ports do reopen, recorded movies and TV shows as well as patchy internet connections are all that entertain them.

image copyrightMatt Burton
image captionMatt Burton says he'd rather be in work, although long shifts take their toll

"A lot of people end up just going back to their cabins and sitting on their phones and watching the same movie again and again," he adds. "There's nothing to look forward to."

But perhaps they are the lucky ones, as they are still being paid. For Matt Burton, who works as an officer on a survey vessel in the offshore oil industry, he would rather be stuck on a ship earning money. He has been a mariner for 32 years. In common with many sailors, if he's not aboard a ship, he's not being paid.

"I'd rather be there earning money, to be frank, absolutely," he said. "I'm used to being stuck on for longer. I have been stuck on board three or four times, I've done four months when it's supposed to be two months. Things happen, your relief gets called away unexpectedly so they don't have anybody for you."

It's not an easy choice, he admits. Four months compared to two is a tall order.

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Mr Burton says he applied to work temporarily on UK ships that might themselves be lacking relief crew as visas are cancelled and international workers make their way home.

But he has heard nothing back, "so I'm sitting at home twiddling my thumbs. Waiting for borders to open up things to start running again."

For cruise ships, it's a different story.

According to one guide on an Antarctic cruise, crew were asked to take huge pay cuts while on board after their original contracts expired, and were only allowed off after sailing all the way to the Canary Islands, nearly a month beyond their planned contracts, passing open ports along the way.

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During the voyage back, her ship picked up crew from other liners, including one where cases of coronavirus were reported.

The BBC requested comment from seven of the largest container and tanker companies in the world on how they will be aiding crews stuck at sea and the unemployed ashore. MSC Mediterranean Shipping Company, the second-largest container firm, responded. Ports are starting to open up to crew changes, it insists.

"For cargo vessels, there are still certain ports where shipping lines can relieve their crew and in past weeks thanks to the recognition by the UN International Maritime Organization and various governments recognising seafarers as key workers, many ports are now allowing crew changes," it said.

Orient Overseas Container Line praised its crews and "their excellent professionalism, dedication and contributions to keeping the cargo moving." It said it will be "keeping a close eye on policy and regulatory updates and maintaining close communications with our colleagues at sea to ensure they are well taken care of."

The sailors who contributed anonymously to this article do not work for either of those two shipping companies.

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  • Seafarers in limbo as coronavirus hits shipping