September 14, 2020

Lockdown at sea: how Covid-19 is transforming tanker operations

By Kevin Turner

The effects of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic have been devastating for just about every sector in every economy around the world. But while so many have battled the hardships brought about by the virus, few have seen their struggles so overlooked and under-appreciated by society at large as the seafaring community. 

Beyond the financial implications of the current pandemic on the tanker sector, the lives of those stranded at sea, and those locked down at home unable to earn a living, have gone widely unreported.

Yet the damage done has been equal to – perhaps even greater than – that affecting workers in many other sectors, who, while struggling with undeniable hardships, have at least been able to do so from the comfort of their homes.

As chief operating officer at Ardmore Shipping, Mark Cameron has experienced first-hand the physical and mental toll the pandemic has taken on his crews, and the extraordinary resilience shown by seafarers around the world.

“2020 has been the year where the accommodation block suddenly turned into the prison block, he exclaimed, in what might well be the definitive quote to come out of pandemic, at least for shipping.

While most operators and owners have done their best to make the lives of those trapped at sea bearable, Mr Cameron does not underestimate the psychological strain these recent months have taken on crew and family alike. Our mantra is ‘safety first’, but this situation has certainly become as much about mental safety as physical safety, he said.

It is a view reiterated by Liberian Registry managing director Gerry Buchanan, who stressed that “seafarers are human beings, not just a commodity.” He highlighted the worrying fact that last year, seafarers had the secondhighest rate of suicide among global workers and asked pointedly “I wonder today, are we number one?”

Equally concerning for Mr Buchanan is the fact that “There is no discernible end in sight”. He explained that any restrictions that stop or limit crew changes contribute to the excessive time on board for seafarers, which in turn result in mental hardships and stress and affect safe operations on board. To this end, Mr Buchanan emphasized that the industry is in desperate need of a globally agreed solution.

Mr Cameron went on to explain that one of the most troubling aspects of the pandemic among his crews has been the constantly changing nature of government advice and industry best practice. “There is only one thing worse than having a failed plan and that is having no plan,” he said. We have had revisions to plans and revisions of revisions; the difficulty comes after the first few iterations when crew thought they had a definite time-scale to work to and suddenly that all changes. That is when your appeals for understanding start to really cause the operations team a lot of sleepless nights.

Mr Cameron was scathing about the absence of understanding shown to seafarers from governmentsThere has been a complete lack of respect and a lack of recognition from the authorities in terms of treating seafarers as frontline workers,” he said. Who can blame the seafarers for the sense of abandonment that many are feeling. There is an overriding emotional element to this that is going to take some time to repair.

Despite the general sense of abandonment by wider society, Mr Cameron was quick to praise those who have stepped up to the plate, notably class and flag. “We have got to take our hats off to class, which has helped us in effectively managing the risk and in performing the necessary surveys and audits. Class has really worked hard to find innovative ways to achieve that. All the major flags have also been exceptional and that has really been appreciated.

Mr Cameron also extended his thanks to charterers, many of whom he noted have placed the harsh reality of finance aside to support operators in the current climate. “In the tanker world, some of the more complicated charterers, those with a reputation for being more financially oriented, have really stepped up and done the right things in terms of offering assistance when we needed it.

The medical perspective

Approaching the problem from a medical, as opposed to operational, perspective, Future Care FACEP global medical director Dr Arthur Diskin MD explained how his long experience on board cruise ships offered a unique take on the maritime implications of the pandemic. As global chief medical officer for Royal Caribbean for eight years and medical director for Carnival Cruise Lines for 15 years prior to that, Dr Diskin conceded he had seen nothing in his career to equal the current situation.

“This is really a major problem unlike anything we have ever seen before,” he said. “As of 13 August, we had 20M cases globally and 751,000 deaths.

From a shipping perspective, Dr Diskin explained that while the key challenges may be obvious – maintaining hygiene, cleanliness and social distancing on board for example – successfully achieving these goals was a far more difficult task. “If you have a pristinely clean or uninfected ship, how do you keep it that way? What strategies do you use to ensure the vessel can go from port to port and remain uninfected and how best do you maintain proper testing? These are the challenges operators now face.

The key to success across most of these areas is flexibility, suggested Dr Diskin“Every week idifferent; there is nothing stable about any plans that you might have to perform appropriate testing, he noted.

And while that may not be very reassuring, accepting that the target is a moving one will at least help operators understand the need to be fluid in their approach to testing.

Dr Diskin pointed out that the industry requires a very portable test, “Maybe even just a little swab of some sort, or like a litmus test” which may not offer the certainty of more expensive, time-consuming tests, but will be far more accessible to those on board.

He also raised the possibility of third-party services being utilized to help operators take the most effective and efficient decisions in their handling of the virus. “Are you able to do that internally within your organization? In all or some cases, farming out those services to somebody with a degree of expertise in the area may be more effective,” he said.

This is another area, and another cost, that owners and operators need to factor into their operations, but one no less important than hull coatings or technical management. While a crustacean-infected hull may impact fuel efficiency, a Covid-infected crew may bring a vessel to a halt indefinitely.

These are the kind of unprecedented, balance-sheet-impacting decisions the pandemic is asking of tanker operators.

In terms of cargo handling, Dr Diskin stressed that at present there is no evidence of transmission via cargo or from supplies being put on board ships. “We still have to worry about contact though, and handwashing remains key, he said.

Dr Diskin explained that operators are going to have to put in place all manner of new policies if they want to effectively combat the problem and ensure their fleets are able to enter ports around the world without significant delay.

These will include strategies for getting people on board safely once they have proved to be Covid-free, and ensuring that once on board, all of the various measures we are slowly beginning to take for granted – hand sanitizers, masks, social distancing – are followed with rigor and discipline.

To date, we have had a very fractionated response to the virus,” explained Dr DiskinAs our knowledge of how best to respond increases, so will our ability to vaccinate and test more effectively. At the moment, everything is really a workaround, just doing the best with the information we have available. We are looking at probably at best a six-month and at worst an 18-month horizon before we can really start to establish a cohesive battle plan from a medical standpoint. But on the positive side, there are very effective, safe ways to transport crew to and from ships and policies that can be put in place to make the risk minimal at this point. As an industry, shipping just has to keep hammering away at it.”

Retaining staff

A big concern shared by both Mr Cameron and Mr Buchanan was the long-term impact of the pandemic on the industry’s ability to recruit strong candidatesI hear a lot of seafarers are now looking for alternative work,” said Mr Buchanan. “That is a big drain to the industry if they are successful.”

Mr Cameron concurred. “We might battle to attract young top talent to seafaring as a career choice,” he said. “Because at the end of the day, young people have choices and getting on a plane and moving half way around the world to join a ship that may or may not let you home at the end of your time is going to be a question that sticks in the minds of a lot of people.”

Mr Buchanan highlighted the problem with an anecdote about a ship manager in Hong Kong who found its crew were unable to join their vessel because no one would offer them transportation from their location to the port.

His story emphasized the importance of a joined-up, crosssector strategy to support shipping. Clearly, there is little point investing heavily in onboard mitigation if crew are stranded 100 km from port.

And this is the problem facing not only shipping, but the world as a whole; identifying individual measures to reduce the likelihood of infection and transmission, while working cooperatively with other stakeholders outside of ones own industry to ensure the steps we each put in place do not have unforeseen consequences for other parties reliant upon us.

It is an unprecedented challenge in the modern era and one that will provide valuable lessons, when we finally overcome it.

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