Measures introduced to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have brought widespread disruption to normal crew change operations, with many seafarers prevented from disembarking or joining their vessels.
GAC Shipping North America Managing Director Darren Martin presents his guide to the current status of crew changes in the country including: where they may be conducted; what restrictions are in place; what requirements must be met; and how many changes GAC has handled to date.
What challenges and restrictions do shipowners/operators face when arranging crew changes in North America, and how have your local contacts helped to ease the situation?
Restrictions vary from port to port. For example, in Houston crew are allowed to stay in a hotel while awaiting flight out, but in NY they are required to leave immediately for the airport. Given the limited flights in/out of the USA, this can cause some problems with logistics.
Crew visas are beginning to expire onboard and US Customs and Border Patrol requires either a valid visa, or the crew member to be placed under guard until they fly out of the USA. This is a significant expense for the ship owner.
If testing is given for on-signers, results are taking 3-7 days (depending on location). This can cause delays to the vessel unless the ship owner chooses to risk putting crew onboard.
While testing has become commonplace in the home country for crew arriving to the US, we have recently had an instance that the crew member tested negative before they flew to the US, but tested positive after boarding the vessel, endangering the ship and crew. It is HIGHLY recommended that all crew are tested when arriving to the US and remain isolated until results are received. We know of at least four (4) examples where crew tested negative in their home country only to test positive in the USA. Unfortunately, the ship managers did put these crew onboard the vessels and the ship had to be quarantined.
How many crew change operations have you successfully executed since COVID-19 lockdowns started?
Between 1 June and 9 July, 1,241.
Are there any specific crew change examples you wish to highlight?
We have been very successful providing COVID-19 crew change services to ship owners. Recently we agreed with a new customer to fly all of their Asia crew into LA to be distributed to the vessels throughout the USA, providing testing at the port of embarkation for each crew to ensure they are safe to board.
We have set-up make-shift labs in major hotels perform PCR tests for crew at the hotel so they remain under isolation to prevent potential exposure.
GAC North America recently performed complete testing and transportation of crew departing back to the oil fields of Saudi Arabia. 122 crew in total where tested at our facility and transported to a hotel near the airport to await a chartered flight. One tested positive, so this testing prevented a certain outbreak on the flight over.
There is great uncertainty around the COVID-19 pandemic; how long it will last, and what its impact will be. How are you managing this from a crew change and lay-ups perspective? What are your expectations for the coming months?
As long as flights remain open, we will continue to see crew changes in the US as regulations appear to be a bit more lenient than other areas. The biggest overall issue is flight availability, which we do not see improving any time soon.
Testing is also becoming an issue with the current outbreak in the USA. Four weeks ago, we had a maximum turnaround of 2 days for PCR tests. Now we are looking at 5-7 days. We are working with a medical supplier to secure dedicated equipment to allow us to perform antigen (not antibody) tests which can give results within minutes. The downside of this is there is a only a 93% accuracy rate compared to 99.5%+ with PCR tests.
As visas expire and embassies are shut down, it will become more difficult to not only off-sign crew as mentioned above, but also bring them onboard as there is no way to get around the visa requirement when entering the USA.