Part 1 of 3: The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on crew changes has been huge. Five companies share their stories and solutions.

The subject of crew changes during the coronavirus pandemic is a hot topic in many ways. The fact that it has not only been covered in maritime media channels, but also the mainstream press, is positive.This means that public awareness of the resilience of seafarers, and the unquestionable importance of the work they do, is slowly gaining ground. There have been calls to define seafarers as ‘key workers’, most recently from the Secretary General of the IMO on this year’s Day of the Seafarer. Despite this growing recognition and respect, the coronavirus crew change situation has not yet been taken on board by the vast majority of national governments, and therefore remains unresolved.

Here at breakbulk.news, we wanted to find out more about what is happening with the maritime companies currently in the thick of the coronavirus pandemic. To create this snapshot of the status quo, we approached numerous parties – including ship management, crew recruitment and shipping and offshore installation companies – for their input.
The feedback that we have received has been so extensive that we have decided to write a series of three articles looking at the coronavirus crew change situation: 1). The Impact, 2). The Response, and 3). The Way Forward.
Our aim is twofold. Firstly, to give the shipping industry a platform to voice its experiences, frustrations and solutions. And secondly, by providing governments and other policy-making bodies with this insight into the everyday challenges faced by such a resourceful industry, to further the discussion about the urgent need for policy reform.

A dire situation…

We kicked off by asking the question: ‘How has the coronavirus crisis affected your crew change operations?’ Not surprisingly, ship management companies have had it tough, as Frank Coles, CEO of the Wallem Group, explains: “Lockdowns and flight cancellations have caused massive delays to seafarers and what used to take few clicks on a keyboard to plan a crew change can now take days.”
While Wallem’s onshore support employees are pulling out all the stops to ensure smooth and safe continuance of operations (1,074 crew joined and signed off from 1st March till 20th Jun 2020), Coles highlights the fact that, although the “seafaring community is extremely resilient”, the impact of government inaction is having a negative impact on crew morale. “We have a situation of dire mental stress and it is largely being ignored by the world leadership. Extensions to contracts, double time on board, missing families, fatigue and uncertainty have led to a major world crisis and one of immense risk.”

…disrupting supply chains

The news from Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement is similar. Not only do government travel restrictions make crew movements extremely difficult, they are “also sabotaging global trade and risking disrupting supply chains,” says Ian Beveridge, CEO of the Schulte Group.
These challenges experienced by the restrictions imposed on operators are best described by Jumbo’s QHSE Manager Johan Wulder. “The challenge is that all the ‘fences’ – visa application, permission to travel in home country, airport opening, flight availability, quarantine measures, local travel to the vessel – should be open at the same time.” This tough situation is made even tougher because of differing national guidelines; exchanging a Dutch officer for a Ukrainian officer, for example. “This is the big daily puzzle for our crewing department.”

The power of cooperation

Judging from the input above, it’s fair to say that the coronavirus pandemic has thrown long-established crew change systems into chaos, with companies being left to fend for themselves in finding workable solutions. Sometimes, however, there is order to be found in chaos.

Orca Crew Services provides an example that can give hope to an industry in difficult times. Despite cancelled flights, lockdowns and travel restrictions, “the coronavirus crisis has affected our crew change operations in positive as well as negative ways,” says Orca’s Manager Operations Angela Ibarra. “We faced quite a few challenges, but managed to come up with several creative solutions. COVID-19 has actually brought us, our clients and employees closer together, which is a positive note in this horrible situation.”

Out of the box solutions

This unexpected, yet much welcome, optimism is echoed by another crew recruitment company, Clyde Marine Recruitment. As Managing Director Ian Livingstone describes the impact of the coronavirus pandemic as “catastrophic for our normal seasonal trade, this been wiped out”, he goes on to outline the value of collaborative thinking with clients. “We have managed to continue operations through the hard work of our local offices and the willingness of our clients to think outside the box.” Livingstone points to the understanding and flexibility of crews as another crucial part of continued operations. “We have been very grateful to all involved in their help and understanding throughout this difficult time.”

This first article in a series of three does indeed make for some sombre reading. That couldn’t be helped; the coronavirus pandemic is impacting the modern shipping industry as never before.

There is light at the end of the tunnel; as the world gets used to the ‘New Normal’, the next article will look at the response to coronavirus pandemic. This will be followed up in the final article by a look at the lessons to be learned in creating more efficient and safer crew changes in the future.

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