Container shipping consultant Andy Lane suggests out of work cruise ships could solve certain parts of the crew change crisis.
Another day and the full expectation that industry media readership will once again be exposed to a raft of articles relating to crew changes, extended working periods of crews beyond their original contracts, and the thus far un-evidenced trend of increasing deaths/suicides at sea.
I have never served at sea, so I have not experienced what many of the world’s seafarers might be going through right now. I was unable to see my son for two months during the Singapore lockdown, and that was not nice, but I could clearly imagine that pales to complete insignificance compared to being separated from families for 11, 15, or 18 months. And coupled with the uncertainty of when that will end. So my sympathies are very much with these essential workers, without whom, our supply chains would have dried up long ago.
I have not also worked in ship/crew management previously, so I will certainly forgive you if you stop reading here because this author is deemed unqualified to comment on the topic of crew changes.
I have however been a ship’s agent, and therefore have assisted many crew changes in the past, many years ago, when that involved actually passing paper flight tickets to the master for the disembarking crew, as well as setting up transportation from the seaport to the airport, and vice versa for the embarking replacements. This is how crew changes have been planned and executed for decades, at individual ship or seafarer level, and through the combination of land and air transportation. In normal times this has been somewhat efficient and effective, and even under pandemic conditions and restrictions, this has continued to be effective, to an extent, with variations experienced across geographies.
Presently off northeast China, there appears to be 50 to 70 bulkers ‘stranded’ outside ports, some of which are said to have been there since June of last year, and others for several months. In all probability the unfortunate crew on these ships have probably extended their duty period beyond what was originally agreed. In total there might be as many as 1,500 crew who need to be rescued.
A potential solution might be a ‘crews ship’. The various shipmanagers should come together and cooperate as a collective, and forget the land/air legacy. There are presently several, if not hundreds, of cruise ships sitting idle around the world. I am fairly certain that the owners of these would welcome some income from their assets, whilst at the same time the charter costs are likely to be rather modest. If the collective can charter one or a few of these, sail them to Philippines or India or elsewhere where replacement crew are waiting, it would be very possible to transport literally thousands of seafarers without crossing a single border.
The crews ship(s) would then proceed to northern China, where they would transfer the relief crews to the many idle ships which do not wish to leave the queue. Speed is not required here, as the crews ship will also serve an isolation purpose. Place onboard a medical team with an abundant supply of test kits and analysis facilities – then probably with a 95% certainty you know that those joining ships will be virus free. For the transfer from/to the crews ship, you can make use of the lifeboats, so the change is performed without any direct contact with land. Being in Chinese coastal waters however, some approvals should probably be obtained before the crews-ship(s) are chartered.
These crews ships ships will then collect the disembarking crew off the commercial ships. In all likelihood they will be destined for a multitude of destinations. But there might well be some critical masses for countries such as the Philippines where they can directly disembark. Once on the crews ship testing can commence, and the ship can slowsteam to its destination(s), serving again the purpose of isolation. We might even ensure that there is cruise-quality food onboard, so that the seafarers can get to feel at least part of the cruise experience, something which they might otherwise not be able to achieve.
For the seafarers who cannot be disembarked directly to their country/region of residence, the ship then proceeds with them to Changi Naval Base in Singapore – which is around 5 km from Changi Airport, and from where flights to a host of destinations are available and operating. This would obviously also require collaboration with the Singapore authorities, but getting extra flow safely through their airport and the national carrier are highly desired right now, so that might not be an insurmountable obstacle.
We heard last week that as an industry we never place cost above people. So cost cannot be a reason not to do it. Neither can the fact that it is unconventional, novel, and somewhat complex. What might I have overlooked, well potentially many things, but from the outside looking in it seems plausible.
Though considered to ease a specific bottleneck, this same model with some adaptation could be applied anywhere that there is a mass which is able to justify it, both from a crew origin perspective as well as at points on the globe where significant quantities of ships converge.