Chinese crew on cruise ship repatriated after 130 days at sea

Cruise vessel Crown Princess. Credit: HASENPUSCH DIETMAR

A group of Chinese seafarers has been repatriated after spending more than four months at sea, a rare positive development as 200,000 seafarers remain stranded amid the international crew change crisis.

Many governments have closed their borders to foreigners, including seafarers, when the COVID-19 pandemic began spreading globally in February 2020. While a handful of countries, including Hong Kong, India, Singapore, and the UAE, heeded the industry’s call to permit crew change, a resurgent new wave of COVID-19 infections is threatening crew change again. With Hong Kong backtracking from 29 July, Singapore is also planning to tighten the criteria for crew change.

It has been estimated that half of the seafarers stranded at sea are working on cruise ships.

In this recent repatriation, 189 seafarers from cruise ship Crown Princess, which is part of Princess Cruises’ fleet, were finally repatriated after spending more than four months at sea due to the difficulties in crew change.

Besides getting the relevant authorities to allow the crew to disembark from the ship, the cruise operator also had to arrange for a chartered flight, as airlines have mostly suspended operations due to the pandemic.

Even before Crown Princess got the go-ahead to dock at Malaysia’s Port Klang, confirming the chartered flight proved to be challenging.

One crew member said, “We were told that the earliest the flight could be arranged was 4 July, then we were told on 6 July that the flight was postponed to 10 July, and then this was pushed back to 16 July and then finally, we were told the flight was confirmed for 26 July.”

When Crown Princess arrived in Port Klang on 23 July, the crew were released after testing negative for COVID-19 and combined with 14 other Chinese seafarers who had arrived from other merchant ships.

The entire group finally boarded a chartered Air Zimbabwe flight that took them to Guangzhou, China. The seafarers come from different Chinese cities and are likely to have to be quarantined for 14 days before being allowed to commute home.

Crown Princess is now in a lay-up facility in Port Klang, but Princess Cruises, which has also temporarily halted operations similarly to other cruise operators, hopes to redeploy the ship for a British Isles cruise in April 2021, subject to the COVID-19 pandemic clearing up.