An international appeal has launched to repatriate abandoned seafarers now that ports are slowly beginning to reopen after months of paralysis in the shipping industry caused by Covid-19.
Dubai Maritime City Authority lifted restrictions on maritime activities last week, allowing commercial activities to resume, but the financial losses for some shipping businesses has been severe.
Restrictions at borders have led to some seafarers being stranded on-board vessels, unable to come ashore, and prevented the delivery of food to the crews.
In response, the International Maritime Organisation issued a plea for sailors to be returned home to mark Day of the Seafarer on June 26.
Crews stuck at sea include those off the coast of Dubai on the Mt Iba, a Panama flagged oil tanker belonging to Sharjah-based Alco Shipping.
Chief Engineer, Nay Win, 51, has been at sea for three years, although his contract was for just 12 months and has been paid for just four and half of those. He is owed more than $75,000 (Dh275,000).
“We are getting by on chickpeas, rice and out of date noodles – but they are limited so we must be careful and ration what we have,” said Nay Win, from a south-east Asian country.
His children, who live back home, have been pulled out of education due to the lack of money for school fees.
According to crew, insurance on the 100 metre long ship expired in November 2018. They could not come ashore as the ship, valued at about Dh5 million, had to be sold first to settle debts. The proceeds would be used to fund the five crew's back-pay and their repatriation costs as well as substantial bank debts owed by the company.
However, the sale had to be processed through courts that had closed because of the virus.
An offer by the owner to pay 45 per cent of salaries owed was rejected by the crew. They have since agreed a deal to accept 80 per cent of their pay, once the vessel is sold.
“The crew is praying every night this will be over soon,” said Mr Win.
The tanker, carrying heavy fuel oil, has been marooned at its anchorage almost four miles off Hamriya Port, just north of Dubai for more than a year.
Prior to the outbreak, crew received regular supplies of water, diesel and food – but boat-drops have become seldom due to pandemic-imposed travel restrictions.
Just three years ago, Alco Shipping was one of the largest shipping companies in the UAE with some 20 vessels on its books.
Unstable oil markets and the onset of the global pandemic placed the business under unprecedented financial strain.
Company management said provisions were ready to deliver within 24 hours notice subject to port approvals.
“All boat services were suspended due to Covid-19 but we have already applied via different channels and sources for the approval to deliver fresh supplies,” said Waqar Hasan, who took over company management in 2017.
“We are trying our best and we have a potential buyer for the ship.”
Elsewhere, fears of Covid-19 infected crew delayed the repatriation of seafarers, whose employers had terminated contacts or were unable to bring sailors ashore.
In one case in the Seychelles, 70 seaman from west Africa tested positive for the virus after arriving in the archipelago to join a fleet of Spanish fishing boats.
The men remained in isolation on their vessel, unable to return home until recording negative coronavirus tests.
The number of stranded seafarers globally is currently estimated by the International Chamber of Shipping to stand at about 400,000.
About half of them need to leave the ships they have been working on with a similar number required to replace them.
“Shipping is truly a global industry and we need governments to provide a global solution,” said Stephen Cotton, General Secretary of the International Transport Workers’ Federation.
"The ITF has been receiving emails from hundreds of seafarers daily, expressing their concern about contracts being extended under duress.
“This will impact their ability to perform safe operations, putting themselves at risk as well as the global supply chain and potentially the environment.”
The UAE’s Federal Transport Authority did not respond to a request for comment.
The mental health of seafarers stuck at sea for sometimes years at a time has become a pressing concern.
Recent data published by maritime insurance providers, the P&I Club, states suicide rates among seafarers tripled since 2014 from 4.4 per cent to 15 per cent, with 26 per cent of merchant sailors displaying signs of depression.
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“Seafarers can be particularly susceptible to mental health issues, as they are often far from home, with little contact with family and friends,” said Chris Peters, chief executive of Tristar Shipping, a company operating 29 gas, oil and chemical tankers with offices in Dubai.
“Covid-19 has forced us all to deal with the unexpected and put in place contingency plans to further ensure the safety and well-being of all our staff and crew.
“While we are all encouraged to talk about mental health, it seems that it is still a taboo subject among seafarers and as a result they are missing out on vital support and treatment at the early stages of a severe illness.”
To aid related issues, Christian charity the Sailors’ Society has established a 24-hour confidential helpline for officers, crew and their families.
The services include crisis response assistance, counselling through various channels such as email, WhatsApp and other social media chat platforms.
Seafarers can also make appointments with counsellors in accordance with the ports they will visit during their contract.
“Being a seafarer is a daunting and sometimes lonely job,” said Mr Peters.
“Companies should reassess ways in which they are providing support to all seafarers across the industry.”
Seafarers and their family members can contact Tristar's dedicated helpline by calling 001-989-3128181 or the Sailors' Society's instant chat via wellnessatsea.org/covid-19.