The COVID-19 pandemic has plunged seafarers around the world in unprecedented and often desperate situations. As of December 2020, over 400,000 seafarers are stranded on ships and waiting to be repatriated, and about as many are stranded home and eagerly waiting to join ships and earn a living.
Seafarers from around the world have agreed to share a glimpse of the challenges they face during the pandemic.
Matt, stranded away from his loved ones
Matt is a 35-year-old Chief Engineer from the United Kingdom. He and his colleagues had not been able to be repatriated despite their contracts being well overdue, as border closures and visa requirements have made crew changes impossible for them. In this interview (July 2020), he spoke about the difficulties of being away from his two children, aged 8 and 12. He was finally able to return home in August, after six months at sea.
Can you describe your current situation and the difficulties you are facing?
“Myself, like most of the crew onboard are now well overdue on our contracts. The officers onboard have 10-week rotation contracts. Most of us have now been onboard for six months. Some for more. It is even worse for the crew. Their contracts are nine months and I have one engine rating who has been onboard for 15 months. The main difficulty we are facing is crew change. We sail mainly in the Middle East and Asia and currently most countries in this region have very strict regulations that make crew change near impossible.”
How are you feeling about all this?
“I think we’ve been through all the emotions to be honest. A lot of anger in the beginning as we had to watch all the borders close. However, we knew the health risk and we could understand why it was happening. We tried to remain hopeful but as time has passed it seems like little has changed. Personally, I feel let down and disheartened that little seems to be being done. There is a lot of talk but no action.”
How is it to be away from your family in this context?
“Hard, really hard. I mean I’ve done long contracts before, but this is different. It has a psychological effect as there is no end in sight. So it affects family life a lot more. My children are always asking, when am I coming home. It’s difficult to explain. Some of us onboard have had news that family members caught Covid-19 and that was really hard to deal with. Thankfully they all pulled through.”
How is the ambiance onboard?
“It changes daily. Some days people are upbeat and then the next depressed. As part of the senior management onboard you try to promote hope that things will change onboard but it’s hard. We have tried to form a tight group to watch out for each other. Some of the people onboard are finding it harder than others so we have to keep a close eye on them.”
Is there a message you would like to send to the world?
“I would say that as seafarers we have more than played our part during this pandemic. We have kept countries supplied with everything they could need: PPE and medical supplies, oil and gas to keep power stations running, food and water to keep people fed. All we want in return is to be able to come home and rest. To allow our reliefs to come and take over from us, so that in time we can do the same for them. We are hanging in here but we are tired and mentally fatigued. We need the support of world governments to allow us to transit through their countries without restrictions. Time frames for visas need to be reduced or scrapped all together. This needs to happen now. The delay is going to have a detrimental effect to the maritime industry. There has been more than enough time for talking now we need to see real action.”
Raphael, tired and exhausted after a year onboard
Raphael* is a 33-year-old seafarer from the Philippines. He was supposed to be reunited with his wife and two children in April, but he could not be repatriated because of airport closures. When he gave this interview to IMO (July 2020), he had been at sea for 12 months, without any shore leave, and described the impacts of his extended time on board on his physical and mental health. He was finally repatriated in August 2020.
What is your situation?
“I am tired, exhausted and hopeless. I have been at sea for 12 months already. And we don’t know when I can see my kids and family. It’s very frustrating. I am trying to show a brave face every day.”
Why have you not been able to go home?
“I was supposed to be home in April, but all the airports are closed. It is impossible to fly home and hotel quarantines are expensive, so they chose not to relieve us. I have already faced four cancellations of going home. I don’t know what’s going on. We deliver the cargo and the goods but they close the borders for us.”
How is the ambiance on board?
“It’s tense. All of us want to go home. Some of us here have already been onboard for 13 months. Some will have been on the ship for 14 months soon. To all seafarers out there, let’s be strong. This pandemic will end, then we can go home.”
Do you fear impacts on your safety?
“Yes, because of the strain on our mental health. Our minds are in different worlds. It’s like walking on thin air. If they cannot send us home, the only thing to do is to reduce our workload. We are still doing 12-hours shifts.”
Vikram, unable to join his ship in the midst of the pandemic
At 33, Vikram has been working as a seafarer for 11 years and is now a Second Engineer. The Indian national is married and has two children, a boy aged 3 and a girl just a few months old. He has tried to join a ship to earn for his family, but was unable to do so. In this interview (July 2020), he explained that the pandemic has brought financial uncertainty. He was finally able to join a ship in the following months.
Tell me about your difficulties trying to join a ship.
“The company I have been employed with has been continuously putting on efforts for crew repatriation. They are always there. But they don't get proper support from the government. On 8 July, I travelled from my home to a different region to join a vessel. I was put in a hotel quarantine for 3 days, tested for Covid-19 and the result came back negative. On 10 July, I got a call saying that the joining had been cancelled and was asked to return home. It was explained that the off signers are foreign nationals who wouldn't be allowed to sign off, which forced the charterer to change the course of the vessel. At this point, there were no other options, so I had to return home and follow the State’s amended rules and regulations. During this travel, the fear and vulnerability of being exposed to the new coronavirus is there. There are so many risks involved. Now I have reached home, and the local authorities have asked me to remain under home quarantine for the next 14 days. My three and a half years old son would look at me through a glass window from another room, and I can't either go touch my four-month-old daughter, since I have self isolated myself. This is a really bad situation.”
How are you feeling about the whole situation?
“I am a bit frustrated by the way a seafarer is being treated and sad at times when I look at it negatively. When I signed off on 23rd December, my wife was pregnant and she was in her 6th month. I looked after her and was with her for the entire time until she delivered the baby. I wonder how many wives are waiting for their husbands, how many fathers and mothers waiting to see their sons. Even if a seafarer has lost his father, mother, brother, sister, son, daughter - he will not make it to land now.”
Are you scared for your family’s financial future?
“Certainly yes, and that’s the need for this job. I am financially still under control and can survive without any help to look after my family at least for the next three months unless another crisis situation occurs. But I ask myself, what after that. Hopefully we don't get into medical emergencies. Else I don't know who is there to look after my back.”
What is your message to the world?
“Please recognise seafarers, help them and support them. When the world is completely at a pause, this has been one sector that has been working continuously under different conditions. Without working hands on the ships, a ship is never going to sail.”
Mr. Verma, struggling to feed his family
At 26, Mr. Verma* has been working as a seafarer for two years to support his parents and his younger brother. When he gave this interview to IMO (July 2020), he had been home without pay for 10 months, because the lack of international flights made it impossible for him to travel abroad to join ship. As a result, he finds it increasingly difficult to provide for his family. In December 2020, he finally saw the light at the end of the tunnel, as his company is now planning for him to join a ship in January.
What is your situation right now?
I have been home for the last 10 months and without salary it’s hard to survive with a family - especially when you are at a lower rank, because your salary is less than 1000 dollars. How many months can you survive with this money? My reliever is now spending his 10th month onboard, so I can say there is a vacancy, but I have no way to reach the ship. The company said there is no way to conduct crew changes due to the lack of commercial international flights.
How do you feel about the impossibility to join ship?
“Anyhow I have to feed my family. The situation is hard, but I try to survive by selling vegetables. Because it seems very easy to say ‘stay at home’ but when you have some responsibility then you need to take some steps. I cannot do anything about this situation so I am just waiting for bright days like before. I am doing all this for my parents and brother.”
Is there a message you would like to send to the world?
“My message is very simple: I understand that working on board for a long time is hard because of restlessness and fatigue, but surviving on land without money is also very hard. So please think about the seafarers who have been at home for more than half a year. I am not only talking about myself, but I am talking on behalf of everybody who is facing the same problem. Please do something.”
World Maritime University report - Seafarers' experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic
The report "Seafarers’ experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic" provides an overview of preliminary findings of a WMU-led research project on the experiences of seafarers during the COVID-19 pandemic. The purpose was to examine the impact of the pandemic on seafarers’ work and life on board as well as on their mental health and exhaustion, and identify factors that may mitigate the negative impact of the pandemic.
The findings were also discussed at a webinar on 25 November 2020, hosted by the World Maritime University. The recording is available here.