Crew change congests Manila with ship deviations

Congestion in Manila port, Philippines. Credit: IHS Markit AISLive ship tracking portal

More than 40 ships deviate to Manila daily for crew changes, resulting in severe congestion around the port.

This was revealed to SAS by Roger Storey, managing director of CF Sharp Crew Management, which specialises in recruiting and supplying Filipino seafarers.

In an e-mail interview with SAS about the crew change crisis, Storey said, “Currently, there is serious congestion in the Manila port area and the average waiting time to have a vessel cleared by the authorities is now over a day. There is a severe shortage of water taxis or tugs to service the more than 40 ships deviating to Manila daily for crew changes.

“If the vessel is on a tight schedule, Manila will not be a feasible option as the total port stay can take over two days, weather permitting. Owners and charterers therefore have to consider possible commercial implications.”

SAS had previously reported that Japanese shipping groups have deviated vessels to bring crew home to Manila, due to the lack of commercial flights. Cruise operators have also used their ships to transport Filipino seafarers home, resulting in Manila Bay becoming the world’s largest parking garage for cruise ships.

The Philippines is the world’s largest source of seafarers.

According to the IHS Markit AISLive vessel tracking data, there are currently 152 vessels in Manila, while another 238 vessels under way are destined for Manila. From 1 to 18 August, 2,197 vessels have arrived in Manila.

In July, 3,415 vessels arrived in Manila, up from 2,279 vessels in June.

However, crew changes may become more difficult as prevailing conditions could worsen further with the weather affecting the western seaboard of Luzon.

Even as the Philippines has become the epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic in Southeast Asia, CF Sharp is continuing to arrange crew change-overs where possible.

It takes 15 days to deploy a crew member to a ship, preceded by any medical examination, and the seafarer must produce a negative result of an antibody test.

Once the medical examination is completed, crew managers can proceed with their documentation process. The medically cleared seafarers must still undergo a swab test seven days before the scheduled departure, except for some ports, such as Singapore, that have specific time requirements.

Seafarers must also have their own thermometers and monitor their body temperature twice daily (morning and afternoon/10 am and 3 pm) at least 14 days before his/her scheduled departure from Manila (temperature must be less than 37.6°).

Storey said that CF Sharp is doing what other professional manning agencies are doing, emphasising that there is no “magic pill” to eliminate the problem.

On-signing crew are advised to self-isolate at least 14 days prior joining and take body temperature twice daily. With most areas in the Philippines in lockdown, there is no public transport so crew are using private-hire cars and taxis.

CF Sharp has reminded seafarers that self-isolation prior to boarding the ship really means staying in a room separately and using a different toilet from their family members in the same household for 14 days.

Storey said, “With extended families living together, the ‘bubble size’ in Asia is larger than other places in the world with the subsequent higher risk.”

Due to concerns with the impact of prolonged onboard employment on seafarers’ mental health, there is growing urgency to address the international crew change crisis.

Philippine media reported on 17 August that the protocols for the proposed activation of the Subic Bay port as a crew change hub are already in place and only need approval from the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority and local government units. The provincial governor has reportedly “approved in principal” to make Subic Bay Freeport Zone a crew change hub, which is away from the crowded metropolitan area of Manila.

A test run was held, with the point-to-point departure and arrival procedures at the former Hanjin jetty near the airport, using a tug to transport the crew to and from ships at anchorage.

Meanwhile, the test run for the crew’s arrival procedure was held at the Subic Bay International Airport where new arrivals would undergo swab tests and have their documents before proceeding to a mandatory quarantine facility.