Two prominent ship managers’ groups are attempting to put in place a crew rotation system to bring back Indian seafarers to and from foreign ports as shipping companies continue to struggle in carrying out proper crew changes at overseas locations.

The three special chartered flights for the seafares, that took off over the last fortnight from Bangalore, Chennai and Mumbai to Colombo and Doha have returned mostly empty. This has forced seafarers and their families to lash out against the Government for denying crew who have signed off from ships to return home.

The Foreign Ship-owners Representatives and Ship Managers Association (FOSMA) and the Maritime Association of Shipowners, Ship Managers and Agents (MASSA) will run charter flights using Indigo planes on the Delhi-Doha-Delhi sector on June 3, 7, 11 and 15.

“We ran an Indigo flight from Delhi to Doha today carrying 121 seafarers. It will drop seafarers at Doha and return empty. At Doha, those seafarers will embark on a commercial flight and go to join ships in US, UK, Europe, Brazil, South Korea and Japan. We have arranged another Indigo flight on June 7, which will also go from Delhi to Doha and those seafarers who went today would have reached their ships somewhere by Thursday and they would relieve some people on board there. Those people who were relieved will come to Doha on June 7 and board our return flight to Delhi,” Captain Shiv Halbe, Chief Executive Officer, MASSA told BusinessLine .

“We need to set up a rotation system, somebody will go and somebody will come back. I sincerely hope it works,” Halbe said.

In fact, Halbe said that the June 7 Indigo flight (that would be flying both ways) of 170 seater capacity is “overflowing” with seafarers, nudging FOSMA/MASSA to think of chartering a bigger aircraft.

FOSMA and MASSA account for as much as 80 per cent of the Indian seafarers working on foreign flag ships owned or managed by entities such as Teekay Tankers, Scorpio Tankers, V Ships, Wallem, Fleet Management and Anglo Eastern.

“We are really hoping that it will fall in place. To be honest, it is the first time where we have not just thought of sending seafarers out but also bringing seafarers back in a rotation, what is called closed loop,” he said.

“This is to protect our jobs. The moment the world sees that Indian seafarers can go out and come back, they will start looking at us seriously. That is the logic behind it,” Halbe added.

“Around the world, more than 12,000 Indian seafarers on board various vessels are currently overdue their relief,” said Captain Sankalp Shukla, Director, Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement (India) Pvt Ltd.

Crew changes have been and continue to be extremely difficult for the whole industry because of the global pandemic, Shukla said.

“To date, we have managed limited crew changes in some European ports, in China, Hong Kong, Australia, Mexico, India, the UAE and in Iceland, but in most cases, the crew changes have been restricted to the nationals of these countries. Because of the suspension of international flights to India and various port restrictions, we have not been able to relieve any of our (Indian) seafarers on ships that do not call Indian ports,” Shukla said adding that his company manages a pool of over 4,250 Indian seafarers.

Given the restrictions, how are FOSMA and MASSA managing to replace Indian crew with Indian crew at overseas ports?

“This is the care we have taken, that those countries or ports will allow an Indian to embark on board and disembark from board,” he asserted.

The bigger challenge, Halbe noted, is that when seafarers go on a tour of duty for 4-8 months, he must come back when the tour is over. So, there should be a continuous rotation system. And this is where the problem is, that the powers that be in Delhi are not accepting or understanding or realising that seafarers can’t stay on board ships for ever, they are stressed out because they can’t keep working for ever,” he added.