Shipping

Why Sri Lanka lost, India gained in merchant ships crew change during COVID crisis?

Photo: Cargo shipping crew members. For Representational Purposes Only.

By Captain Sanjay Prashar

Kochi port in Kerala on India’s West coast and Port Blair in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands on the East-end of India were the newest merchant shipping crew change destinations over the last three months.

Cargo ship-owners have diverted their vessels to the two Indian ports during this COVID-19 lock down to make the best use of the opportunity to provide relief to the overworked existing crew members and embarking new crew members.

The reason for India’s success in attracting merchant vessels to these Indian ports were due to the consistent policy of the Ministry of Shipping for enabling crew changes these past months by overcoming the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Colombo, which used to be the most popular destination for crew changes before Coronavirus pandemic hit the world, could not attract crew change stop overs of cargo vessels. And this could now become permanent.

What went wrong with Colombo? They started off well on May 18 when the first Indian seafarers charter flight took off to Colombo. By June 22, Colombo had done more than 30 sorties of charter flights for seafarers.

One fine day in June, a new health clinic in Colombo was asked to do a COVID-19 test on a probable crew members for a cargo ship and the tests reported 22 Indian seafarers are COVID-19 positive and another eight had their results as “inconclusive”.

Three days after the tests results came, Sri Lanka said all eight probable crew members with “inconclusive” were finally tested “negative”. Interestingly, only one of the 22 seafarers, who were initially declared as “positive” for Coronavirus and admitted to Sri Lankan government hospitals, showed any signs of COVID-19, and all other 21 seafarers were tested “negative” and nobody else who came in contact with them ever tested positive.

When these 30 Indian seafarers had left the Indian shores to Colombo to board the cargo vessels, they had tested “negative” for COVID-19

Yet, Sri Lanka stopped all crew changes for merchant vessels and diverted all the ships for crew change away from Colombo port. That sudden shift in crew change policy of Sri Lanka sent confusing signals to both the seafaring community and the merchant shipping industry globally.

The result was zero crew change stopovers for merchant vessels at either Colombo or Galle. If Sri Lanka continue with this approach, zero crew change at its ports would become permanent or minimal in the long run.

Meanwhile, Doha in Qatar began taking up the load of two daily charter flights for seafarers on transit. New Delhi gave a blanket approval for seafarers’ charter flights. India’s Minister of State for Shipping Mansukh L. Mandaviya decided to let Indian seafarers to assume duty wherever the cargo ships were doing crew change.

Thus, in the last four months, several thousands of seafarers have benefitted with jobs on board cargo ships, both at Indian ports and at other foreign ports to where charter flights were ready to take them.

United Arab Emirates opened up to the Indian seafarers and Hong Kong too was ready to take up the transiting Indian seafarers, both those embarking and those disembarking.

India’s Port Blair in the Bay of Bengal had soon witnessed first crew change after ships were diverted there. Incidentally, it costs shipping companies 40 per cent less to do a crew change in Port Blair and Kochi rather than in Colombo.

The American crew change at Indian ports are the new normal. Malaysia too opened up to the Indian seafarers to carry out crew change on merchant vessels. Europe is full of crew change destinations and Indian seafarers are doing great at those ports too. Port State Control of Australia asked ships about crew change and extended contract under the Maritime Labour Convention.

It seems the world has now accepted seafarers to be boarding ships and getting off duty to go back homes and are allowing crew change. The Indian seafarers are making the best of this opportunity by bagging the jobs on board the cargo ships.

Charter Flights Information

  • Doha-Delhi Airports: Daily flights Doha-Delhi-Doha operated by Qatar Airways on charter.
  • Doha Hub Airport: Seafarers can stay 36 hours and daily flight from Doha to Singapore; five days a week to Hong Kong; four days to Beirut and onward journey to Suez; two flights daily to Istanbul; daily flights to Amsterdam; and four flights to the United States, daily flight to the United Kingdom.
  • Colombo Airport: After June 22, all crew changes stopped in Colombo. Of the 137 seafarers, who were tested for COVID-19, only one was finally confirmed to be positive after 14 days. Rest all joined ships. Colombo for crew change has not been successful.

(The writer is the Managing Director of Mumbai-based VR Maritime Services Private Limited, International Maritime Federation’s India Chapter chairman, National Shipping Board member, and Himachali Seafarers Association founder-member)

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