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Crew change crisis: ‘Nothing is happening’, conference told

The coronavirus pandemic has opened up positive developments for the maritime industry, including an accelerated use of technology, delegates to the Connecticut Maritime Association Conference heard

Necessary technological improvements as a result of lockdowns have been far overshadowed by the serious and continuing problems the pandemic has created for seafarers, according to speakers at an industry gathering 

DELEGATES to the Connecticut Maritime Association Conference have learnt that the coronavirus pandemic has opened up some positive developments for the maritime industry including an accelerated use of technology.

But those technological developments have been far overshadowed by the very serious and continuing problems the pandemic has created for seafarers, according to a panel of industry leaders.

“The last six months have been a period of unprecedented access to people because nobody was able to travel,” Katharina Stanzel, managing director of Intertanko, told delegates. “Everyone was behind their screens all the time and it was easy to actually talk to people that you wouldn’t normally get.”

Thomas Keenan, executive vice president for marine operations at Liberty Maritime Corporation, said the pandemic had accelerated the use of technology.

“Technology has allowed us to operate the ships remotely,” he said, adding the industry had been “very successful” in arranging cargo for ships, loading ships, discharging ships and sending ships on their voyages — all through the use of new technology.

At the same time, though, Mr Keenan drew attention to the very ill effects the pandemic has had on the plight of the seafarers who have been operating the ships during the course of the outbreak.

“The failure, which we’ve uncovered here, is that the crew situation, even today, is bad,” he said. “We’d like to think that everything is happening, but nothing is happening.”

He drew attention to recent announcements from China which seem to “loosen up” the crew change requirements.

“But if you read the new requirements, it’s still not acceptable for the crew members or the operators to change crews.”

The panelists agreed that the problem was no longer entirely in the hands of the maritime industry, but involved the often incompatible demands of a host of other people, organisations and governments.

Rear Admiral Richard Timmes of the US Coast Guard said that “it remains a challenge, not just for individual shipping companies, but for the global community.”

“The Department of State has to take that on because it’s exceeded your local governance issue [as to] whether the port facility you’re at will allow you to crew change,” he said. “It’s way beyond that.”

He warned that “we are building up the risk” in the system, in the form of crews “who haven’t had a change-out in a year”.

Guy Platten, secretary-general of the International Chamber of Shipping, affirmed that the industry had undertaken a massive campaign on behalf of seafarers but that their efforts had fallen on deaf ears.

“The issue we have is that countries, quite frankly, have abrogated their responsibilities to abide by international conventions,” he said. “There’s been unprecedented lack of co-operation between countries and solving the problem, because it was easy to avoid.

“It’s easy to put seafarers to one side because everyone’s focusing on the national health issues.”

Ms Stanzel noted that the problem could not be solved on the basis of the top-down command structure that one would find in the US Coast Guard — the go-to organisation that usually achieves the desired results.

“The problem here, I think is that the complexity is much, much bigger because it’s public health [and] people’s lives are at risk. And there are many, many more people involved in the chain.”

To overcome what Admiral Timmes described as the “multivariable calculus” of dealing with so many different people, Ms Stanzel said change “has to start everywhere at the same time. It has to be a groundswell. If we all agree that this has to change, it can be done”.

For her, it is a problem that requires urgent attention from key decision-makers simply deciding to cut through the issues that are preventing a solution.

“If we just have enough people with enough power deciding something together, we can make amazing things happen, but we just need to get on with it.”

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