Pandemic sets new reality for seafarers

A seafarer on deck of an offshore vessel. Credit: Getty Images

The work to protect crew wellbeing has taken on even greater significance during this pandemic, with a new set of challenges facing those in the seafaring community

The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a very welcoming bright light on the crucial, but largely hidden, role that seafarers play in the world economy. It has also made their lives immeasurably tougher. They cope with long separation from their families to do a dangerous, lonely, and mentally and physically demanding job. Serious accidents, fatalities, and suicides are more common in their industry than most others, as are abandonment and piracy.

Due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, many seafarers who have finished their contracts at sea are presently stuck on board ships or in foreign ports, unable to get home. Others are in the reverse situation and cannot start their new contracts at sea, so are currently without any pay; this is especially stressful for single-income families. Vessels arriving in port are unwilling to allow seafarers shore leave, nor do they want to risk infections coming aboard through ship visits.

In normal times, Stella Maris supports crew by conducting more than 70,000 ship visits every year. Our staff provide welfare services, advice, friendship, practical and pastoral care to all seafarers, regardless of nationality, belief, or race.

Now, in the temporary absence of ship-visiting, Stella Maris port chaplains and volunteers are finding innovative ways to support seafarers through this incredibly difficult time.
Helping seafarers stay in touch with their family back home is essential. This includes supplying crew with top-ups for their phones when requests are sent via text or email. Often this may mean the first contact crew have had with their families for more than a month. Our volunteers have also had to get creative, with one unable to board the vessel, delivering top-up cards to the crew using a rope and bucket instead.

When buckets and rope would not suffice, pilots have helped our teams to deliver items to vessels. One at Teesport took toiletries onto a ship on our behalf; the crew had been sharing one tube of toothpaste between them and it was down to its last drop. It is often these small acts of kindness that can make a difference to life on board. Each act is an attempt to give a boost to crew wellbeing, whether that is one of our port chaplains doing washing for a fisherman in Aberdeen Royal Infirmary or in Southampton, making up packages of sim cards, woolly hats, chocolates, and magazines to the bottom of a ship’s gangway to be picked up by the seafarer on watch.

The COVID-19 pandemic is undoubtedly making a huge impact on the mental health of some seafarers. In some cases, family or friends have died from the virus while they were at sea and unable to go home because of contract extensions or because they could not be repatriated. Their families are equally distressed, unable to visit their loved ones in quarantine or hospital.

The new reality may last quite a long time and some aspects of everyday seafaring may undergo radical change. However, one thing that will remain constant is the seafarers’ need for human interaction and support while working thousands of miles from home to keep the world’s supply chains open. Stella Maris is working with corporate partners right across the maritime sector to ensure that the seafarers’ human needs continue to be met.

To read more about the work of Stella Maris and issues that seafarers face, download the Life at Sea Report here.