Shut Down and Stranded: Pandemic realities for those Who Work at Sea:

Oct 15, 2021 by Corey D. Ranslem

Quarantines and locked-down borders leave seafaring crew with nowhere to go, and no way to get there.

Delays, cancellations, restrictions, closures, quarantines, and last-minute changes have been the norm for the world over the past 18 months. But for those who work at sea, the fallout has been immense. Crews were stuck — some for more than 14 months straight — on cargo ships, cruise ships and large yachts. While cruise lines moved ships to key locations around the world in an effort to repatriate crew members who couldn’t get flights, some cargo lines were unable to move crew to and from ships for more than a year because of national lockdowns and flight restrictions. Yacht crew have faced extended quarantines in marinas and yards, and in some cases, extended time with owners on board and no charters.

“I’ve never seen anything on this scale,” said Capt. Jake Oberholzer, who has been in the yachting industry for more than 20 years. “Just after 9/11 was difficult, but not at this scale. Issues seem to be continuing and countries keep going into lockdowns again and again.”

The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) and the International Maritime Organization (IMO) estimate that there were over 400,000 seafarers stranded at sea or on board their vessels in September 2020. This included cargo lines, cruise lines, and large yachts. And with global airline capacity reportedly down by close to 70%, even if crew were able to get off their vessel, they couldn’t fly anywhere.

Travel providers, yacht management companies, yacht agents and other yacht support companies worked overtime to understand the wide-ranging regulations in different countries in order to move crew members, owners and contractors around the world.

“Staying up to date with the continuous changes of international border rules and country COVID requirements primarily has been the biggest challenge, closely followed by airlines and their schedules and their individual interpretation of the rules and regulations,” said Tim Davey, founder and managing director of Global Marine Travel.

Many companies were not able to get contractors to vessels for services, which put an even bigger burden on the vessel’s crew. Crew placement agencies have also struggled.

“We face a number of issues, including expired visas, countries closed, and inability of crew to get in or out of certain countries,” said Marcy Williams, director of crew services for Northrop & Johnson. “We would hire crew for a specific vessel or charter, and then they got COVID just prior to joining. We also had a number of crew on board yachts that got COVID just prior to a charter starting, and then we need to find crew that can do the trip.”

Williams said that because there have been issues getting experienced crew to vessels, in some cases, yachts have accepted less experienced crew to fill positions. “The crew shortage is real, and those that have their B1/B2 and are vaccinated can pretty much name their price.  I am seeing the salaries,  across the board, skyrocketing.  Not a bad thing, as salaries have remained the same for several years.”

Oberholzer agreed that one of the biggest problems during COVID has been getting crew to and from the vessel. “There were limited international flights, and crew who had to take leave needed to quarantine. Crew joining the vessel also added to the risk of infecting the onboard crew. One of my biggest issues was dealing with crew,” the captain said, “ while trying to maintain a safe and healthy working environment on board.”

Oberholzer said he had a number of problems trying to get his U.S. visa renewed while in South Africa. “My visa appointment was canceled because of the travel ban, along with the Delta variant. I had to reroute to Costa Rica and luckily found an emergency appointment for visas. It did make it much easier to travel after spending two weeks in Costa Rica, as I didn’t have to quarantine when returning to the United States.”

Davey said there are several procedures that have changed, and many of them haven’t made a lot of sense. For instance, they’ve had groups of people scheduled to travel on the same flight when some of the crew were able to get on a flight while others were denied boarding, even though they all had the same documents.

“This has led to us having to adjust our booking agent’s interaction with both the airlines and our customers. The average booking time has quadrupled as we need to check, re-check and check again before sending information out,” Davey said. “The role of a travel agent has come a complete 360 since the days when the internet took over some of the travel agents’ functionalities. In fact, we are hiring new agents so that we can keep up with our service level expectations.”

Davey said clients have also experienced issues connecting through some airports where flights have been canceled at the last minute, leaving crew stranded, “We had customers connecting through various cities, only to find their onwards international flight is allowed to fly, but without passengers.”

The pandemic’s unprecedented restrictions on how people could travel, conduct business, and service their clients affected maritime businesses as well, many of which had to scale back their operations or temporarily furlow employees when yachts ceased their normal charter and owner trips. A number of businesses within the industry closed permanently because of the lack of work.

Most industry experts, however, are positive on the long-term outlook and predict a quick recovery for the superyacht sector. Although the world continues to deal with the global COVID pandemic, more and more travel restrictions are being  lifted and international flights are coming back online, creating hope for seafarers that life — and traveling — will soon return to normal.

Davey said it has been much easier for crews to travel when they work with GMT and other travel agencies. “Our yacht clients have a partner with them when they book and travel with GMT, instead of relying on airlines direct or other online websites. Our around-the-clock, live support team is able to keep up with the changing regulations and requirements, and can prepare travelers with the most up-to-date information. The amount of airline schedule changes, including last minute cancellations, has caused major issues with our clients, but we have been able to work through the disruptions and changes to help get our clients where they need to go.”