Seafarers ‘hostage’ to the Corona crisis

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Norway, as a maritime nation, is expressing official concern over how more than 200,000 seafarers around the world remain stranded on their vessels because many countries won’t allow crew changes. Norwegian shipowners are referring to both officers and crew as “hostages” of the Corona crisis.

Chief Officer Bengt Ellingsund has been on board the chemical tanker Bow Fortune since January 12, and is keen to finally be able to go ashore. PHOTO: Odfjell

Bengt Ellingsund, a Norwegian officer on board the Odfjell vessel Bow Fortune, hasn’t set foot on land since January 12. The 183-meter-long chemical tanker is currently off the coast of South Africa.

Ellingsund and everyone else on board the ship haven’t been allowed to disembark because of infection fears that have closed borders and harbours. Grounded flights have also made it difficult to fly home even if members of the Bow Fortune‘s crew were able go ashore.

The strict regulations have thus made it difficult if not impossible to relieve crews and make necessary crew changes. Odfjell stated on its website that around 200,000 seafarers have overrun their contracts on board, “and just as many are waiting to get back to their jobs at sea. The consequences are increasingly problematic and the situation is fast becoming critical.”

Can affect trade and safety at sea
Ellingsund noted how crew members are frustrated that they’re only allowed to load and unload cargo, but not go ashore. “There is little goodwill from the countries we serve,” Ellingsund stated on Odfjell’s website. “Apparently a crew change is a great risk and we struggle to understand why. We have been infection-free since the outbreak, we have procedures for who can board the ship, and we continuously monitor our own physical condition so that we know we are healthy.”

Harald Solberg, chief executive of the Norwegian Shipowners Association, stresses that the situation is taking a toll on the crews, with some working constantly and not allowed to see family for as long as 13 months. Worst off are those who were due to go off duty after several months at sea just as the Corona crisis hit last winter.

Solberg also worries that exhausted crews can also affect safety at sea. “We can’t continue to hold crews like hostages because of infection control measures,” Solberg told NRK. “The shipping industry has imposed good infection control measures that mean we could change crews in a responsible manner.” He also noted that most countries around the world depend on sea transportation, and trade could disrupted.

Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide has appealed to ambassadors to help relieve exhausted crew members on ships around the world. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor/Eirin Larsen

Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide and Trade Minister Iselin Nybø have taken up the issue with the several international shipping organizations and UN’s International Maritime Organization, which has its own guidelines for crew changes, “but many countries unfortunately haven’t followed the guidelines and still have extremely strict rules,” Søreide and Nybø wrote in an commentary published on NRK’s website.

Norway’s embassies and consulates are trying to help Norwegian shipowners in various situations and to create “better understanding among local authorities about the critical need for crew changes.” Norway follows the UN’s rules and also has deemed seafarers to be among “essential personnel” who can win exemptions from Corona containment measures.

Søreide herself has taken up the issue with her counterparts in countries where the crewing situation is a problem. She also recently invited several other countries’ ambassadors in Norway to a meeting to discuss the crewing restrictions. Nybø took part in a similar meeting earlier this month arranged by the British transport minister that involved 19 countries, the IMO and various international organizations.

‘Can’t sail through the whole Corona crisis’
“We will join other maritime nations in continue to maintain the pressure to find solutions,” Søreide wrote, “but this is demanding at a time when infection rates continue to increase.

Solberg of the shipowners’ organization said he had the impression that Norwegian authorities are trying to help, but there’s still no broad international agreement on the issue. “We can’t just assume that everyone on board ships when the Corona crisis began must sail through the whole crisis,” he said.

Harald Fotland, operations director for Odfjell, described the situation for both the crews and the shipowners as “very difficult” and “a great source of anguish” for the crews stuck on ships, but also for their families. Since ships facilitate around 80 percent of global trade, he noted, the inability to change crews could disrupt important supply chains that otherwise “have proven so resilient during the Covid-10 pandemic.”

Fotland said Odfjell’s Bow Fortune was now sailing on to Antwerp in Belgium, one of the few harbours still open for crew changes.

NewsInEnglish.no/Nina Berglund