Trapped by Pandemic, Ships’ Crews Fight Exhaustion and Despair

When borders closed, seafarers on ships around the world suddenly had no way home. Half a year later, there’s no solution in sight.

By Aurora Almendral

BANGKOK — Ralph Santillan, a merchant seaman from the Philippines, hasn’t had shore leave in half a year. It has been 18 months since he reported for duty on his ship, which hauls corn, barley and other commodities around the world. It has been even longer since he saw his wife and son.

“There’s nothing I can do,” Mr. Santillan said late last month from his ship, a 965-foot bulk carrier off South Korea. “I have to leave to God whatever might happen here.”

His time on the ship, where he spends long days chipping rust off the deck or cleaning out cargo holds, was supposed to have ended in February, after an 11-month stint — the maximum length for a seafarer’s contract.

But the Covid-19 pandemic led countries to start closing borders and refusing to let sailors come ashore. For cargo ships around the world, the process known as crew change, in which seamen like Mr. Santillan are replaced by new ones as their contracts expire, ground nearly to a halt.

In June, the United Nations called the situation a “growing humanitarian and safety crisis.” And there is still no solution in sight.

Last month, the International Transport Workers’ Federation, a seafarers’ union, estimated that 300,000 of the 1.2 million crew members at sea were essentially stranded on their ships, working past the expiration of their original contracts and fighting isolation, uncertainty and fatigue.

“This floating population, many of which have been at sea for over a year, are reaching the end of their tether,” Guy Platten, secretary general of the International Chamber of Shipping, which represents shipowners, said on Friday. “If governments do not act quickly and decisively to facilitate the transfer of crews and ease restrictions around air travel, we face the very real situation of a slowdown in global trade.”

Some crew members have begun refusing to work, forcing ships to stay in port. And many in the shipping industry fear that the stress and exhaustion will lead to accidents, perhaps disastrous ones.

“Owners made their contract so short for a reason,” said Joost Mes, the director of Avior Marine, a maritime recruitment agency in Manila. “The consequences are coming closer, and the margins of safety are getting less.”

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