Crew change rush at Indian ports slows in a sign of recovery

A tug on standby at Cochin port. Credit: Cochin Port Trust

Sign-on and sign-off activities are slowly back to normal in Indian ports after a phased lifting of COVID-19-induced travel restrictions, a sign that repatriation efforts have paid off.

The latest crew movement figures obtained by SAS for some of the key port locations reflect the moderating trend. For example, crew change cases at Cochin Port Trust (CPT), which has emerged as a hot spot for crew changes because of locational and cost advantages, have fallen to 1,228 cases on 28 September, from 3,090 cases in August and 4,296 cases in July.

“The rush seems to be over and what we are seeing now is more like a routine flow,” a CPT official said.

Between 24 March and 28 September, more than 600 ships have visited the southern port for crew changes, including 566 ship calls at the outer anchorage and the remainder at inner berths. According to the official, the total number of crew change is 12,324 cases.

CPT’s uniqueness rests in its close proximity to the busy east-west international shipping route, whereby long-haul ships plying the Asia-Middle East and Asia-Europe trade lanes need minimal deviations when crew changes are done at the port’s outer anchorage. Additionally, this method of operations – using tugs to carry seafarers to and from the mother ship – does not attract the usual high port charges.

New statistics released by Mumbai-based ship agent JM Baxi Group corroborated the slowing movement of Indian seafarers in and out of various ports. Countrywide, the company handled 814 crew changes in August, out of 61 vessel calls, compared with 2,317 cases in July and 9,046 cases in June.

By location, JM Baxi reported 484 crew change cases at Cochin in August, compared with 674 cases in July; whereas at Mumbai port, its numbers stood at 302 and 1,160, respectively.

India’s Ministry of Shipping last month noted that because of the government’s proactive and co-ordinated efforts, more than 100,000 Indian seafarers were able to return home or join their employment via domestic ports or using chartered flights, which it touted as a global record during the pandemic.

“To sustain the maritime transportation during the pandemic situation, the Directorate General of Shipping has taken various initiatives like extensions of various certificates required for sailing, online e-pass facility for travel, etc.,” the statement said. “An online utility has been created for verification of seafarers for chartered flights and for uploading details of stranded seafarers along with online ship registrations and online charter licencing. Seafarers had to suffer due to closing of sign-on and sign-off, and lockdowns and movement restrictions imposed by various countries worldwide.”

In early September, the Sri Lankan government introduced protocols for Indian crew changes via Colombo after imposing a temporary ban a couple of months ago in response to COVID-19 from some of the visiting seafarers. As a result, Indian seafarers who arrive in Colombo will need to undergo a second polymerase chain reaction test in addition to the one done by them within three days before departing.

Despite the lockdown relaxations in India, commercial vessels from China arriving in Indian ports need to undergo a 14-day quarantine protocol (where the voyage between the foreign port and an Indian port is typically less than 14 days), which often requires these ships to spend two days or more at the anchorage before entering an Indian port. This mandate has an adverse impact on normal vessel berthing and terminal operations.