Crew changes gain steam at Indian ports

Celebrity Infinity at anchor in Goa. Credit : JM Baxi, Mumbai

Life has begun to turn around for thousands of Indian seafarers who were stranded at sea or ports due to travel bans imposed by many governments to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Directorate General of Shipping (DG Shipping), India’s maritime administrator, said almost 19,000 Indian seafarers were repatriated between 27 March 2020 and 15 June 2020, even as lockdown restrictions persisted, albeit to a lesser degree since mid-May. Of this, 7,280 seafarers signed off at various domestic ports, with the rest using specially chartered flights to return home. Additionally, Indian ports had 4,562 on-sign cases during the same period.

“The problem of crew change was anticipated well in time by the DG Shipping and the Ministry of Shipping, and concerted efforts were made to minimise the adverse impact,” the maritime administrator said.

Mumbai and Cochin ports registered the bulk of crew change activity, with sign-off cases pegged at 3,541 and 1,105, respectively. The off-signers included 7,330 seafarers from cruise liners operated by Carnival Corporation, according to the DG Shipping.

Meanwhile, 2,689 seafarers were able to join their ships at overseas ports, such as Port of Colombo in Sri Lanka, Doha Port in Qatar, and in Singapore, by connecting through chartered flight options.

“Travel restrictions had also threatened the job prospects of Indian seafarers working on foreign flag ships due to their inability to join ships at foreign ports,” said DG Shipping. “The calibrated measures and sustained efforts to co-ordinate crew change at all Indian ports and through chartered flights have shown positive results.”

Mumbai-based ship agent J.M. Baxi Group claims to have taken a lead on crew change at Indian ports. The company told SAS that it has handled more than 130 ships countrywide since the beginning of April for crew change.

“It has been a very long and difficult path to the success we have achieved by repatriating over 5,000 Indian seafarers to their homes in the comfort of their family environment, and avoiding altogether unnecessary institutional quarantines before seeing their beloved ones,” the company said.

With lockdown restrictions lifting and economies gradually reopening, crew change continues to gain momentum at Indian ports and elsewhere.

The Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) has approved more than 13,000 cases of crew change for some 650 companies since 27 March 2020, covering a total of 1,150 ships. These include tankers (42%), bulk carriers (23%), container ships (22%), and other vessel types (13%).

The MPA said it has been working with various stakeholders to facilitate and accelerate crew change for seafarers. “This is being done in a controlled and regulated environment through a ‘safe corridor’ to minimise any risk to public health within Singapore as well as to the shipping community,” the MPA said. “Since the pandemic, the MPA has facilitated some cases of seafarers requiring medical attention ashore to date.”

However, on 24 June, the Sri Lankan government placed a temporary ban on crew change, after some 30 Indian seafarers who had arrived by chartered flights tested positive for COVID-19. This was a big blow for Indian seafarers as ship operators and manning agencies have lately been using Colombo as a ‘crew change hub’ for the region.