That seafarers have not been universally classed as key workers means crew changes have become extremely difficult during the current pandemic. Ship registers are now acting to remedy this situation
Until the fully autonomous tanker arrives, the most expensive and delicate component of the modern vessel remains the crew. And as DNV’s head of tankers Catrine Vestereng explained during Riviera’s Tanker Shipping & Trade, Europe, virtual conference, the plight of crews during the Covid-19 pandemic has become one of the most important issues facing tanker shipping.
The issue of Covid-19 and crew change was discussed by a specially commissioned panel during the conference, consisting of Dania Ship Management general manager - head of vetting, Torben Hertel; OSM Maritime head of chemical tanker fleet Steffen Tunge; and IRI/Marshall Islands Registry chief operating officer John Ramage.
Mr Ramage set out what flag states and administrations were and were not allowed to do in these extraordinary circumstances. He pointed out that flag states do not get involved in crew changes. “This is the manager’s responsibility,” he said, “but we will give assistance whenever it is required.”
He continued: “As a flag state, Marshall Islands has been pushing for seafarers to be regarded as key workers and we encouraged countries to allow them free access to and from ships.” This is part of a wider movement from IMO downwards to plead the case for the seafarer, pointing out their contribution to the global logistical supply chain, not just in the tanker trades, but across all goods and commodities.
“Charterers need to agree with the owner to divert a tanker to allow crew changes to take place”
“However,” explained Mr Ramage, “this very much depends on the outbreak and the individual Covid-19 strategies in each individual country.” It is a volatile situation with countries flipping from allowing travel to imposing new restrictions as the wave of the pandemic ebbs and flows.
“Marshall Islands has encouraged managers to look at alternative ways,” he said, “and some of our owners have deviated vessels to ports where crew changes can take place and made use of scheduled flights.”
Mr Tunge and Mr Hertel agreed with Mr Ramage’s opening remarks. Mr Hertel said adding remote surveys to the SIRE inspection regime was a useful aid, “But it will not take over the physical inspection of SIRE,” he noted.
Mr Tunge tackled the first question, which came from an investor in shipping, who noted only the charterers and cargo owners have the commercial power to pressure governments to create regulations to allow mariner exceptions to Covid travel restrictions. “Have you (the panel) seen the Cargill’s and Exxon’s of the world apply pressure on governments?” they asked.
Mr Tunge noted that under several voyage charters there is a clause that forbids crew changes. “I find that really unproductive,” he said.
Mr Hertel’s observation was that charterers’ exhibited a lack of common sense when it came to crew change.
Mr Tunge gave the example of a crew member urgently required for a vessel in Houston. The crew member was cleared to fly into New York and then was escorted by two security guards on the flight from New York to Houston. This made no sense from a health point of view, said Mr Tunge, who added: “You have to remember that the US is made of 50 states and each has their own ideas.”
An interesting question was proposed from a ship financier, who asked: “As investors, we have engaged with our portfolio companies including charterers, shipping firms and ports to learn more about how they are assisting with crew changes. Could you provide some areas for investors to verify (crew change), so that we can engage with them more actively, instead of a general request of "are you doing the right thing?"”
“They (seafarers) should be treated like airline crew, that would be a huge benefit”
Mr Ramage replied that there was IMO protocol on crew change, which could be referred to. Mr Tunge suggested that as investors, they needed to address the question to the charterers; one of the stumbling blocks to crew change is the ‘no divert’ clause. Charterers need to agree with the owner to divert a tanker to allow crew changes to take place.
This is one area where investors can exert some pressure. “This is really something that can be shared [between owner and charterer]. It is not only for the owner’s [account]; that is my message,” said Mr Tunge.
He reiterated the message of Mr Ramage, that seafarers need to be designated as key workers. “An airline crew can fly around the world and stay in a hotel and fly out the next day,” said Mr Tunge, ”They (seafarers) should be treated like airline crew, that would be a huge benefit.”
Tanker Shipping & Trade asked a range of flags and registers for their advice on Covid-19, including the reasons they have been given by countries and ports to prevent crew change, and the options available to owners and operators.
The Maritime Authority of Jamaica’s director general, Rear Admiral (retired) Peter Brady clarified some of the reasons flag administrations have been given by authorities for not allowing crew change or not classifying seafarers as key workers. “Some countries have restricted crew change, except for their own nationals, who are able to transit their borders to join or leave ships,” he said, “There is also the suspicion on the part of some States that, because of the global nature of their jobs, seafarers are significant transmitters of the disease.”
IRI/Marshall Islands Registry’ Seafarers’ Manning and Training vice president, Capt. John Hafner said: “Many countries had not previously considered or recognised the essential role seafarers play in the global economy, so officials and legislative representatives need to be informed and educated before such a designation is made. IMO has pushed Member States to recognise seafarers as key workers, but these designations happen on the domestic, not international level and success of relieving crew members is very much in the hands of national authorities.”
He added: “The designation itself is not enough. It must also come with guidance and directives as to what that designation means and the rights it affords.”
Liberian International Ship and Corporate Registry (LISCR) chief operating officer Alfonso Castillero noted a lack of harmonisation of visa allowance times with regards to quarantine periods. He also flagged up lack of flights in/and out of many countries. “We have seen these travel and flight issues as the main obstacles with regards to crew change,” he said.
“We must ensure seafarers are able to board vessels at the beginning of a contract and go home at the end of a contract”
He added that contract extension on an automatic or semi-automatic basis is not the answer: “Issuing one letter for the whole fleet, extending labour contracts and seafarer documents without even taking a look at each particular vessel and each particular crew member is somewhat irresponsible,” he said. “We look at every single contract extension on a one-by-one basis.”
Does a real-world solution to this problem exist and would a global network of crew change hubs be a viable option? Probably not, as Covid-19 travel restrictions change frequently and rapidly. The shifting nature of the virus has meant that countries where crew changes could be facilitated last month may not be available this month, or next. A crew change protocol has been developed and is in use, but there is more work to be done.
The establishment of hubs with dedicated hotels, where seafarers can isolate prior to joining their vessels, would be a welcome addition to the existing protocols. However, this may not always be possible, especially in cases where the ship’s voyage orders are changed abruptly, or a seafarer’s travel is delayed. Unfortunately, until the virus is brought under control/eradicated and travel patterns/availabilities return to normal levels, there will not be a comprehensive solution, meaning we must remain vigilant and seek out adaptable and flexible plans.
Capt. Hafner said that the priority now must be to ease the crew change process. “We must focus on ensuring that seafarers are able to board vessels at the beginning of a contract and go home at the end of a contract. It is important that seafarers have access to the approved vaccines sooner rather than later to facilitate crew change and repatriation.”
The UK Ship Register and the wider Maritime and Coastguard Agency has pointed out that it was quick to work with the UK government to repatriate over 20,000 seafarers from around the world. “We will continue to work with domestic and international partners to help get more seafarers home to their loved ones,” said a representative. “The UK was the first to designate seafarers as key workers. At the UK-led Maritime Summit on Crew Changes, held 9 July 2020, we urged all IMO states to designate seafarers as keyworkers.”
Mr Castillero noted: “The fact is the parties that ratified the international conventions, like IMO, are not the people in charge of the ports and the crew. The national health agencies have taken over and have other mandates or priorities with regard to their nation’s health than that of the crews on ships calling their ports.”
All agreed that a solution to the Covid-19 crew change conundrum must be found soon. “We won’t give up until there is a solution to this crushing dilemma,” said Mr Castillero.