The fact that seafarers have not been universally classed as key workers means crew changes have become extremely difficult, delegates to Riviera’s Tanker Shipping & Trade, Europe virtual conference were told
The first session of the last day of the Tanker Shipping & Trade virtual conference was opened by a special address from the Platinum sponsor DNV GL, represented by Catrine Vestereng, who said the plight of crews during the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic was one of the most important issues facing tanker shipping.
The panel for the Facilitating crew change in the age of Covid consisted 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 allowed and not allowed to do in these extraordinary circumstances. He pointed out that flags 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.”
“As a flag state, Marshall Islands has been pushing for seafarers to be regarded as key workers,” he said, “and 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 the wider contribution made to the global logistical supply chain, not just in the tanker trades, but across all goods and commodities.
“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 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.” The reality is that at this time in the pandemic lifecycle, planning is required and spontaneous crew changes are no longer possible.
“We (Marshall Islands) will also carry out extensions to seafarers contracts, if required,” he said. “We have issued dispensations for seafarers who have left the vessel without a relief being able to connect to the ship.” These are issued on a case-by-case basis where it does not interfere with the safety of the vessel.
A similar service is provided for officer endorsements that have expired. “This is dependent of the national authority extending their licence,” he said.
He also noted that it is very important for managers to keep a record of the attempts to repatriate crew, especially where a seafarer’s time on the ship exceeds 12 months. This should include the ports the vessel called at and why the repatriation could not take place.
“This is essential when dealing with Port State Control as it shows that the managers have tried hard to relieve the crew and that they (the managers) are not taking advantage of the situation,” he said.
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 said.
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?’
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.
This was picked up in the next observation: ’There seems to be a lack of common sense when it comes to crew changeover, especially in the US’.
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. He said, “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: ’As investors, we have engaged with our portfolio companies including charterers, shipping firms and ports to learn more about how they are assisting with the crew change. 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?" Any suggestions on how investors can be of help would also be appreciated.’
Mr Ramage replied that there was IMO protocol on crew change, which could be referred to. Mr Tunge suggested that as investors, they need 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 that 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 the airline crew, that would be a huge benefit.”
Conversely, if a crew member is taken sick, it may reduce the number of required crew below the crew matrix. The question arose: “What happens if crew member(s) had to come ashore and the ship no longer meets the minimum crew requirement?”
Mr Ramage noted that this had actually happened and in these cases the ship can have special dispensation to sail, but the relief crew member has to join at the next port. The factors allowing the ship to do this include where the ship is trading, the length of the voyage and rank of the individual – this is not an option available for a missing Master or Chief Engineer except in force majeure.