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“See the World,” They Said

Stuck at home or stuck at sea? It’s the maritime world’s new dilemma.

View From the EU

Published Apr 16, 2021 4:10 PM by Erik Kravets

(Article originally published in Jan/Feb 2021 edition.)

I grew up with stories of my Uncle Bernhard’s trips to Japan as a merchant mariner. There was that odd black-and-red lacquer side table he brought back sometime in the 1920s. That was another time – when putting in at a foreign port meant days of rest or adventure while cargo changed hands.

Since containerization, time in port is down precipitously. A 2018 paper in the International Journal of Shipping and Transport Logistics by a four-author team determined that the global average turnaround for a docked ship was 25.5 hours, peaking in South Africa at 64.6 hours and the lowest in East Asia at 17.2 hours.

Even with such a short stay, assuming you can get a visa, this is still long enough to pop in and experience the city for a night before steaming away to the next destination.

The long hours, months away from home and hearth and demanding physical labor are enough to deter most. But seafarers have a peculiar – some would say “salty” – type of personality. The bad is made up for by the good of being at sea, away from civilization aboard a miracle of engineering whose purpose is – although brazenly capitalist – nevertheless, in its way, honest and noble and certainly essential.

The twin lures of being away from society’s routines and vanities while being able to test your strength by visiting faraway parts of the world are what have pushed people to sea for generations. But part of that package deal was that, at some point, one would – and could! – return home.

Stuck at Sea

What if the apartness becomes too much? What if you’re stuck on board and can’t go back? Nothing but the walls of your cabin, the decks of your ship, the smell of bunker oil and the rumble of the ship’s engine day in, day out. Even the view of the ocean may begin to feel like a prison.

And what if you’ve been stuck on board for longer than the 12 months that the Maritime Labor Convention (MLC) says is the maximum allowed? That’s the recent (and current) reality for “hundreds of thousands of seafarers,” according to the International Maritime Organization. Indeed, some haven’t been home in 18 months.

Skuld, the Scandinavian protection and indemnity club, suggested in one of its circulars that the “prolonged onboard stay” may “give rise to an issue of unseaworthiness.” In other words, if crews are so exhausted and fed up with being on board, can they be counted on to keep the ship safe? While the MLC allows for exceptional contract extensions for acts of god, these are not indefinite. And there is the technical issue that MLC violations can be regarded as flaws in the vessel safety management system, given that International Safety Management Code S1.2.3 stipulates MLC compliance.

It’s distressing that only 52 governments have designated seafarers as key workers, thus exempting them from numerous COVID-19 related restrictions. With international flights suspended or limited, border crossings subject to hindrances and port entry restricted, especially for foreign nationals, it’s never been more difficult for seafarers to be repatriated or even to just occasionally stand on terra firma.

A directory maintained by Wilhelmsen shows that 35 major ports, many in Africa and Central America, don’t allow crew changes at all. Hundreds of other ports allow crew changes subject to restrictions of varying intensity. And the rules are constantly – frustratingly – in flux.

For example, it was possible to change crew in Hamburg upon presenting a negative COVID-19 test. But since September 1, 2020, a 48-hour minimum quarantine is mandatory. Each restriction causes paperwork and costs – both human (stress, waiting) and financial (hotels, room service).

Seafarers used to be able to hop on a commercial aircraft to fly home. But as aviation shriveled, the number of flight connections in January 2021 was down 43 percent vis-à-vis January 2020, according to data company Statista.

The situation was so grave that Peter Döhle, a major German vessel owner and operator, devised its own solution by chartering a B-767 to pick up 220 stranded Filipinos. Upon arriving in Manila, the aircraft picked up 220 relief crew and brought them to Hamburg. All this required COVID-19 tests and quarantine coordination with the German states of Lower Saxony, Hamburg and Bremen.

As if crew changes were not already tricky enough, this year will see crewing costs up 10-15 percent across the board, largely due to these same problems, according to maritime consultancy Drewry. The overrun results not only from contractual overtime but also discretionary bonuses.

With crew changes hard to carry out in practice (Drewry even uses the word “impossible”), those seafarers who are on board are often being asked to stay while relief crews are left unable to even start their contracts. Some of those seafarers are being paid a half-wage as retention, i.e., to stay at home and wait.

That’s one side of the coin.

Stuck at Home

For as many ballads as there are about going away, being on one’s own or seeing faraway places, let’s turn to the domestic front. Who can forget the lyrics of “Rolling Home”: “Many thousand miles behind us / Many thousand miles before / Ere we reach our native country / To that well-remembered shore.”

Yet the shore (office) may not offer escape from mental and physical hardship either. The staffs that manage our industry may be able to come home at night, but they’re still locked down.

Germany now wants employees out of the office altogether. As of January 20, 2021, using coronavirus emergency orders, Germany’s State and Federal Government Conference Committee ordered companies to ask employees to work from home unless there are “urgent reasons” why this is not practicable. While the Committee stopped short of making work from home mandatory, German Employment Minister Hubertus Heil said there would be “inspections,” carried out by workplace safety officials, along with fines for employers failing to provide work from home “wherever possible.”

If one’s only remaining social outlet is at the workplace, this hurts. Two years ago, well before the virus even struck, German broadsheet Süddeutsche Zeitung reported that a home office can be bad for you. “Individuals working from home frequently suffer more from psychological problems than employees who commute to the office daily,” stated the headline.

There’s a “separation between the private and professional spheres” that a home office “dissolves,” according to AOK, Germany’s largest public health insurer. The German Chamber of Insurance Brokers verified that regions with more home office use did correlate with fewer COVID-19 deaths, but home office workers also reported significantly higher rates of exhaustion, rage, irritation, nervousness and irritability than their office-bound brethren.

At one point in time, onshore work would have been punctuated by attendance at industry conferences – those big, shiny spectaculars where the maritime elite would come together to exchange ideas and cards. Posidonia, the biggest of all, was originally – in a more optimistic past, as it were – rescheduled for October 2020, but was ultimately cancelled.

Germany’s festive 72nd Eisbeinessen, a “who’s who” of shipowners, was iced. Regardless of how you stand on the culinary merit of pickled pork knuckle as the event’s sole menu item, the loss of personal connection is a blow to an industry that prides itself on hands-on practicality, self-direction and ability to get along as a group.

Without meet-ups and conferences providing fertile ground for connections and ideas, the big players will rake in outsized profits more than ever before. Those companies who already benefit from the biggest mindshare will be even less threatened by competitors, who are now not even able to get their message in front of potential customers, let alone seal a deal with a handshake.

Meanwhile, site visits are tricky. Classification societies like DNV GL now offer remote surveys using streaming and recorded video. They’re also offering postponements. What will happen when the postponements run out?

Component and material certification has gone virtual, too. Saving “time, effort and cost,” once a nice option, is now a necessity. Fragmentation along these lines encourages hands-off ways of thinking. DNV GL says “input” is “provided by the customer and crew,” making the surveyor – now sitting at home behind a screen – less important. And it also means the ability to continue business operations at all is contingent on overcoming the digital divide.

Seeing the Bright Side

Yet all these are high-quality problems. We can be grateful that our industry has been deemed “essential” or “relevant to the system” or any of the other euphemisms that denote economic activity so important for our collective survival that it just can’t be closed down.

Creditreform, a German consumer debt ratings agency, expects 24,000 company insolvencies to be filed in Q1 of 2021 after the German government’s COVID-19 moratorium on insolvencies expires – more than in an entire typical year. Perhaps this time shipping companies won’t be in the direct line of fire.

So, we still have our jobs – most of us. Even if we’re isolated at home or in our cabins at sea. We’re two months shy of a full year in lockdown. If the MLC says 12 months is the tripwire that triggers a claim to repatriation and shore leave, then all of us are due for a little rest and relaxation. – MarEx

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.