The COVID-19 pandemic may have left millions in isolation in 2020 during global lockdowns – but for sailors marooned at sea, being cut off for from the world is far from new.
However, the aftermath of the pandemic – including border closures and immigration restrictions aimed at containing COVID-19 – has meant a longer spell in solitary onboard, with many sailors left marooned at sea despite finishing their normal tours of duty.
The pandemic has also spelt a another disaster for those seafarers who were already stranded at sea – abandoned without pay, fuel and supplies – due to ongoing legal disputes, often as a result of vessel owners not paying wages and owners abandoning vessels with outstanding debts, leaving sailors unable to legally dock in ports.
This double blow has put hundreds of sea merchants across the region at risk of severe mental strain, according to those working to help abandoned sailors return home.
Nay Win, a 53-year-old from Myanmar, is a chief engineer on the vessel Mt Iba, a Panama-flagged oil tanker belonging to Sharjah-based Alco Shipping, with five crew on board.
Two years ago, he and the other four members of his crew anchored 3.4 miles from Port Al Hamriya port, off the coast of Dubai. To date he is owed $93,000 in back pay. The vessel’s owner is currently in a legal dispute, he says, and he and his family are desperately waiting on the money that is owed.
For seafarers, leaving a ship is the last resort, as the vessel represents their bargaining power for unpaid wages.
“We are all suffering emotionally,” said Mr Win, who has not seen his wife, son and daughter for 40 months – and is bracing for another Christmas without them.
“We have all not been able to financially support our families back home for a very long time. It means all the crew and all their families are getting into big trouble.”
“We are all very depressed.”
The double whammy means charities are working overtime to help those abandoned in Arabian Gulf waters – with workers warning that being stranded at sea during a global pandemic is having an impact on sea merchants’ mental health.
COVID worsens difficult situation
Mohamed Arachedi, of the ITF Seafarers’ Trust, said that while seafarers in the region had “many difficulties” prior to the pandemic, “COVID-19 made things that much worse.”
Having set up the trust’s branch in the Arab world two years ago, he has been at the forefront of helping sailors in the region.
The waters around Yemen, the UAE, Kuwait, and Lebanon are some of the busiest in the world, he says, for stranded seafarers.
Many, he said, are cases of “severe abandonment” – classed as where the crew on a vessel have been left onboard without assistance, wages or supplies for months on end.
“What COVID has done has really brought an already bad situation to the very limits. It has enabled unscrupulous ship owners to not assume responsibility.
‘It has burdened an existing bad situation for seafarers. They are suffering onboard ships.
“I think this year it is very evident that governments should take it seriously. If everyone agrees –
everyone – that nine percent of goods in the world is via to shipping, then we can agree these seafarers are very key workers- and those key workers need to move.
“It is absolutely unacceptable ton have seafarers on board a vessel for more than 18 months and they cannot be repatriated because they are in a country whose borders are closed.”
IMO estimates 400,000 seafarers stranded
On World Maritime Day, 24 September 2020, the head of the International Maritime Organization said some 400,000 seafarers from across the globe are now stranded on ships, continuing to work but unable to be relieved, in a deepening crew change crisis which threatens trade and maritime safety.
During a high-level event on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly, Captain Hedi Marzougui, who was in command of a vessel between December 2019 and May 2020, appealed to governments to act to allow seafarers to come home.
“Not knowing when or if we will be returning home brings a severe mental toll on my crew and myself,” Captain Marzougui said. “I would encourage each and every one of you to think of how you would feel, if you had to work every day, for 12 hours, with no weekends, without seeing your loved ones, and trapped at sea. Now add that you have to do that with no idea of when you will be repatriated.”
Rev. Andy Bowerman, Gulf and South Asia regional director for the Mission to Seafarers, a charity supporting abandoned crew in Dubai, is says he is helping double the number of stranded seafarers than before the pandemic struck.
“For the past years we have been helping seafarers around UAE waters and we normally help anywhere between 60 -70 (stranded) seafarers at any one time.”
This includes helping seafarers as they battle legal disputes which mean they unable to leave their ships and enter the UAE – and get their hands on their outstanding salaries – as well as ensuring they get essential supplies and human interaction with scheduled visits as often as the charity can offer assistance.
Often, said Bowerman, the latter is the charity’s “bread and butter” due to the men on the ships suffering from isolation, loneliness and mental struggles.
“Currently I am helping around 200 seafarers in the waters around the UAE,” he said. “That suggests a significant increase than before the coronavirus crisis.”
This was a blow to many vessels stranded off the shore who were nearing a resolution to their outstanding cases – some who whom have been stranded for 18 months at sea.
“There were cases nearing conclusions, then once COVID hit the people were going to buy the ships and help withdrew tier offers because they couldn’t afford it.”
Take, for example, said Rev Bowerman, the case of the crew stuck on the Mt Iba.
Some crew members have been at sea for three years - despite initially signing for a 12-month contract - and been paid only the first few months of pay.
“The deal was almost signed and we were on the verge on agreeing what money the men were going to get and booking their flights home but then COVID-19 came, and the lockdown happened.”
The offer was taken off the table, said, with a “derisory one” put in its place
A Chief Engineer on such vessels can expect a monthly salary of up to 7,400 dirhams ($2,000).
“Times that by 18 months - in some cases - and that is a lot of money and these seafarers ca not take huge deductions of 50 per cent on what they are owned,” said Rev Bowerman. “They are the sole breadwinners for their families and, without having received any financial help for years, their families back home have borrowed money from friends, from banks…these men need their full salaries to clear the debts that have racked up back in their home country against their families.”
The crew on vessels such as Mt Iba are now “almost back to square one,” and are facing the multiple despairs of not being paid, not being able to send back to family who rely on them as their sole breadwinners and being separated from families during the global pandemic.
It means abandoned vessels can feel like “floating prisons,” said Rev Bowerman. “It is like people being imprisoned and for no fault of their own. Some of these sailors are nearly facing a mental breakdown.”
Some vessels are covered by existing insurance policies - meaning the sailors get access to food, water and essential supplies. Others are not so lucky and rely on the donations of charities such as Mission to Seafarers.