Last week four Indian officers on board Maersk Kyrenia, a ship owned by the world’s biggest container line, faced resistance from the local police as they signed off on being relieved at the end of their contracts, when the ship called at Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust (JNPT).

The event highlighted the ordeal faced by seafarers as crew changes turn a nightmare for fleet owners and ship managers worldwide in the wake of the lockdown imposed by nations to slow the spread of the Corona Virus.

Four seafarers wanted to sign off from the Maersk-owned ship during a call at JNPT, but the local police didn’t allow them to get off the ship, said Amar Singh Thakur, general secretary of the Maritime Union of India, the body representing merchant navy officers in India.

“All permissions were given by the authorities, but local police didn’t allow them to sign off. Finally, an ambulance had to be arranged to take them,” Thakur said.

Acting on representations received from the Indian National Shipowners Association (INSA) on similar such incidents at Indian ports, the Director General of Shipping has asked the chief secretaries of all coastal states to advise their law enforcement agencies/concerned machinery of the State to facilitate services engaged in supply of provisions and spares to the ships and transportation of ship crew within the city.

“The Indian police and other authorities should abide by the advice of the DG Shipping. We are asking that if a seafarer wants to sign off in this situation they must be allowed after proper check-ups. They have declared ports and shipping as essential services and ship crew are part of that. It is the government’s duty to look after them,” Thakur said.

Indian seafarers returning home after completing contracts – particularly those who have travelled overseas to Corona Virus infected regions - will have to undergo a 14-day self-quarantine period, the DG Shipping has said.

The DG Shipping has also advised Indian seafarers working overseas, either on Indian or foreign ships, to not sign off after completing their contracts and return to India except in an emergency, citing restrictions imposed by the government on international and domestic travel to combat the Virus.

India has more than 210,000 seafarers of which close to 190,000 are employed on foreign flagged ships.

Typically, some 100,000 crew changes happen a month globally, according to the International Chamber of Shipping, the world’s largest shipping organisation. But, such changes have become tricky and are being put off as ports across the globe ban such movements to slow the spread of the pandemic.

As more and more countries closed their borders at a faster pace and shut airline services, Maersk Line decided to suspend all crew changes for Maersk operated container vessels until April 14.

“The decision is based on the need to keep our crew safe while maintaining operations as normal as possible,” Adhish Alawani, Regional Communication Manager at Maersk Line said.

“Secondly, the rapid changes to global travel poses a risk of stranding seafarers in transit, in locations from where they are unable to leave or get sufficient assistance,” he said.

“For the Maersk Kyrenia that called APM Terminals in JNPT, part of crew signed off as an exception since signing-off crew members were from India. The crew followed all the guidelines laid by the Indian authorities in case of such a crew change. They were taken to the local hospital in the port for their screening and check-up as a part of the defined process in such a case. Given their travel history, they will also follow self-isolation for the next 14 days and their health will be monitored,” he stated.

“We respect the fact that the seafarers are an essential element of our operations that keep the supply chains moving in these critical times and are therefore cooperating with authorities for all requirements in every possible way,” he added.

Many Indian seafarers have been stranded across the globe after signing off from ships with no means to repatriate to India due to flight suspensions, said Abdulgani Serang, general secretary-cum-treasurer of the National Union of Seafarers of India (NUSI), which represents ratings (general purpose staff) on board ships.

“Many seafarers have been isolated in different parts of the word. They want to return home but there is no logistics arrangement. Now, with this lockdown, they are in a worse situation. Even if they reach India somehow, there is no logistics/transport to go home. Seafarers are very frustrated; their families want to have them home because a person in sight is much better than being stranded somewhere in times like this. We are asking them to hold on wherever they are whilst we try to work out something,” Serang added.

NUSI is running a hostel facility near Mumbai that can house as many as 1,500 seafarers. “We just cannot leave them to their mercies in such a situation, so we are arranging everything for those who stay there,” Serang added.