Quarantine – or a slow boat to China?

Tensions surface when hopes for shore leave fade.
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By Jonathan Spencer
Crisis Response Manager, Navigate Response (London)

We shouldn’t be surprised there are tensions that surface when hopes fade for shore leave and family contact. But it should be recognised that ship operators seek outcomes to swiftly resume operations and services; to find a way home for crew members.

Some 90 per cent of global trade (by volume) is moved at sea, and seafarers are the beating heart of any maritime operation. That’s until stringent immigration health protocols put a spanner in the works. But this has become a new normal in this ever peculiar crisis.

When the bulk carrier, MV Archon, with its 21-strong Chinese crew made a scheduled stay at Barcelona in late October, all necessary audits were carried out. Crew vaccinations were arranged. All the crew had valid contracts: nine with previously agreed contract extensions and 12 with their original contracts remaining valid. Business as usual, you might say.

It’s a well-worn irony that vessel crew transfers are nearly always facilitated by scheduled flights. So yes, just as everybody else faced the disruption of being grounded by lockdowns, seafarers joining vessels have ended up stranded, couped up in quarantine hotels or simply stuck aboard in extended, seemingly never-ending contracts.

Every now and then there’s a providence, where a smart solution turns a situation around.

Remaining aware of significant difficulties arising over repatriating Chinese seafarers, the bulker’s owners specifically chartered the vessel to load a cargo from the Black Sea bound for China, enabling the opportunity for crew changes. Any attempt to disembark them at Barcelona would have resulted in the seafarers remaining stranded in Spain. Faced with a crew in quarantine, fixing the vessel for the Yuzniy-Beihai voyage was the most efficient solution to ensure the crew got home.

All crew members were briefed on the inability of repatriation at ports prior to Beihai and agreed to  disembarkation at China.

A day before departure, ship-operator, Blue Planet Shipping, was notified by the local International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) about crew members wanting to disembark and informed the Port State Control.

Blue Planet made enquiries about crew changes at Barcelona, finding immigration authorities had denied permission for the required 14 days’ quarantine. The ship-operator then faced there being no direct flights in operation between Spain and China; in the circumstances this being a necessary prerequisite for repatriating Chinese nationals.

Port State Control at Barcelona interviewed all the seafarers onboard. The original option of repatriation at China was submitted. The vessel’s Flag State (Marshall Islands) acknowledged this with a reissued Crew Change Plan, and this was accepted by Port State Control.

But of course, the last two years has been anything but plain sailing.

The vessel arrived at Yuzniy, Ukraine to load cargo and encountered port congestion and delays similar to those experienced at Barcelona. Yet again, immediate repatriation proved impossible.

Seafarers have found themselves at the sharp end of the pandemic. So often a silent minority, beneath the radar of consumers ashore, commercial crews remain the backbone of global logistics. Little wonder then that a ship operator prioritises the wellbeing of its crews and their families through today’s exceptional hindrances.

MV Archon arrived at Beihai, China on 31 December. Following Covid tests and disembarking formalities, the crew changes were completed.

Safe passage, as a ticket home, can hardly constitute forced labour. Responsible ship-operators don’t abandon crew members. They do their utmost.

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