COVID-19: Serious concerns over safety of thousands of Russian seafarers stranded on ships

The captain steers vessel along the Volga River Verkhny Uslon. during the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: Photo by Yegor Aleyev/TASS via Getty Images

A Russian seafarer union has expressed serious concerns over the safety of an estimated 10,000 Russian seafarers that are stranded on merchant ships all over the world due to COVID-19 international travel restrictions.

“Every day we are receiving letters in which [Russian] seafarers ask us to take urgent actions to replace them. We [are] really afraid we could have some collapses,” Nikolay Sukhanov, chairman of the Far East division of the Seafarers Union of Russia, said at a press conference on 25 April.

As crew changes are currently unable to take place due to global travel restrictions, Sukhanov noted the heightened risk of crew experiencing severe stress and nervous breakdowns due to physical and mental exhaustion and not being able to return home to their families. This, he said, could lead to unrest on the vessels if they are left stranded much longer.

Sukhanov’s fears are not unfounded; on 5 May police were called on board Mein Schiff 3, anchored in Cuxhaven, Germany, after quarantined crew smashed furniture and chanted to be let free, complaining of prison-like conditions on board. Thousands of seafarers are on board, picked up from stranded cruise ships.

There are currently thousands of crew members, of all different nationalities, stranded around the world on vessels due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. Every month, about 100,000 seafarers need to be changed over from the ships which they operate to comply with relevant international maritime regulations, governing safe working hours and crew welfare, so that they can continue to transport global trade safely.

On 19 March, pleas were issued to the UN by major international organisations to keep crew changes happening during the COVID-19 crisis. Meanwhile, the International Transport Workers Federation and the International Chamber of Shipping this month called on the G20 countries to choose a number of ports that could operate as “crew change hubs”. For example, these ports could operate in Dubai, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Tokyo.

“In this case, these cities could accept aircrafts with only seafarers onboard, and merchant ships could call their ports to replace crews,” Sukhanov said. However, no progress has been made so far.

Until the issue is resolved, shipping companies are having to extend crew contracts, opening up the risks of crew fatigue and exacerbating already heightened levels of stress and anxiety onboard.

“As of today, this problem [crew changes] is not only concerning the Russian shipowners, it reached the scale which makes it necessary for the International Maritime Organization to take certain actions,” Igor Sharkov, director of the Vladivostok division of shipping company FESCO, said.

In a move that should provide some hope for crew stranded on vessels, the International Maritime Organization has listened to pleas to support crew changes and this week circulated a 12-step ‘roadmap’ to its 174 member states, providing governments with recommended protocols to free seafarers from the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) lockdowns by allowing exemptions for them to join or leave ships.

“The problem is simplistic, but the solution is complex. So, we have stepped up and done the homework and developed the protocols. We are now working with governments to implement this roadmap,” said Guy Platten, secretary general of the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS).