Crew managers attempting to repatriate or relieve seafarers are facing a number of challenges, and these may be the tip of the iceberg for the shipping industry, according to crewing specialist Henrik Jensen.
A number of companies and maritime organisations have joined forces to investigate how crew changes can be made possible during the Covid-19 pandemic, said Mr Jensen, founder of Danica Crewing Services which has offices in Hamburg, Ukraine, Russia and Latvia. However, global travel restrictions and quarantine requirements are proving difficult to overcome.
Part of the problem is that each country has its own version of measures in place to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. “At present every country has its own set of rules. As a collective industry we now have work in progress to set-up an industry standard on how joining seafarers should be tested and stay in self-isolation before travelling etc,” Mr Jensen explained. “This has two purposes: to develop a common standard policy which, if followed, would allow seafarers to cross borders and move to their vessels, and to reduce the risk to existing crew members of bringing the virus onboard.”
One of the biggest hurdles to be overcome at present is the lack of commercial flights to facilitate crew changeovers. The consortium is in the process of identifying key ports and investigating flight charter options.
Speaking for Danica, Mr Jensen said: “The problem we, and I guess many others, have is that the majority of our vessels are in the tramp trade with the schedule not known much ahead – which makes it difficult to determine the ports. Only 15,000 of the world fleet of 75,000 vessels are in the liner trade with relatively fixed schedules. It is very difficult to foresee where vessels will be at a certain time and therefore very difficult to consolidate crew changes with other shipping companies.”
If the group can secure flights the costs will not be cheap. Mr Jensen said: “All this is not a free ticket. Chartered flights are expensive and so are the majority of the remaining commercial flights. We investigated putting on one flight within Europe and the costs with airport taxes would have been about 1,200 Euros one way per seafarer – for a journey which would usually be 3-350 Euro.”
“There is no playbook for this situation – new solutions need to be created to cope with the problems. It is important that all stakeholders in the industry come together to get in place common standards and new modus operandi to solve the problem. We need to help overdue seafarers as soon as possible to eliminate the safety risks posed by the stress and fatigue which is building up now.”
Ship operators are facing other costs too. Covid-19 test kits are expensive and, in addition, many crew members are being paid extra salary as compensation for staying longer onboard or spending time in quarantine facilities. “Shipping companies are already under financial pressure, with ships being idle, and I am afraid a huge crisis is looming,” remarked Mr Jensen.
New builds also need to be collected, warned Mr Jensen. “A number of the owners we work for have purchased new vessels which are due to come under our management,” he explained. “While the takeover of these vessels has been postponed, it is now becoming imperative for commercial and legal reasons that the ownership change. Unfortunately it is a challenge not only to get the crew onboard but also for the owners to have their superintendents, Class and Flag surveyors and technicians to attend the vessels in order to facilitate the change of ownership.”
When the pandemic begins to dissipate and global coronavirus restrictions are relaxed, crew change problems may become even more challenging, predicted Mr Jensen. “I don’t want to be pessimistic but I think this is going to take a long time. The world is not going to open up in one go – countries will come back step-by-step. The number of crew who are overdue being relieved is growing and to change large numbers of crew who will need to be replaced or moved at that time will be a challenge, particularly if ship operators are trying to remain within existing budgetary restrictions. We also need to bear in mind that replacing an entire crew who are overdue could jeopardise the safe operation of the vessel.
“In addition, the workplace will have to adapt as social distancing and other physical restrictions are likely to continue for the rest of the year – certainly that is what some leaders, such as the German Prime Minister, have indicated.”