Following the last week’s Baltimore bridge accident involving a container ship manned by the 22 all Indian crew on board, a leading union in the US questioned the competency of Indian seafarers in manning large ships.

However, the seafarer community in India strongly refuted the charges, stating that globally Indian seafarers are the most sought after onboard merchant ships.

All the biggest cargo ships have Indian crew on board, they said.

India ranks fifth globally in the seafarers’ supply with nearly 2.5 lakh seafarers, consisting of 12 per cent of its global community, according to government data.

The container ship Dali with an all-Indian crew and two pilots was involved in the Baltimore bridge collapse incident on Tuesday in the US, with one minor injury reported.

The incident on the Francis Scott Key Bridge impacted individuals, with two rescued from the water, one with serious injuries, as reported by Baltimore fire chief, ABC News, and vessel owner Grace Ocean Pte Ltd & Ship of Singapore.

A media report says that the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association (Meba) warning of the dangers of growing vessels and shrinking crews, said those from overseas are “not up to the standards” required in the US.

The association’s senior official was quoted in the report that only a trained crew could avert such accidents.

“That’s a very generic and loose statement. The same ship and many others with Indian seafarers call so many ports successfully. Indian seafarers are most sought after today,” said an official of a large recruitment firm involved in recruiting Indian seafarers for ships globally.

These ships have a high level of automation and are highly sophisticated. Machinery fails occasionally as it did here and we will have to wait for the investigation to learn what happened and how they responded.

Maritime labour unions always support local crews over foreign crews. Besides, the US does not have a sizeable foreign going seafaring pool, he said.

Such a conclusion would be premature and subjective. In due course the official enquiry will reveal the cause of the ships engine breakdown, said a former master mariner who had over two decades of experience on board large cargo ships.

If anything the crew was professional and competent in that when the Allison with the bridge was very likely the crew gave a Mayday call. This enabled the authorities to stop the traffic to the bridge. This saved many lives. This action was appreciated by the Governor of the state else the death toll would have been higher, he said.

“The crew cannot be solely blamed. There’s an underlying issue concerning safe manning aboard ships that has deteriorated over time,” said Chirag Bahri, International Operations Manager, The International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN), a UK-based NGO maritime charity that works to improve the lives of seafarers and their families.

With fewer crew members now manning vessels, workload has increased, leaving crew members with less time for themselves, heightened fatigue, anxiety, and stress levels. I disagree with labelling the crew as incompetent.

The crew promptly alerted authorities, which undoubtedly saved many lives, as acknowledged by President Joe Biden and the Mayor of Baltimore in their press addresses. The crew is doing the best they can, but globally, the prioritisation of the health and wellbeing of seafarers is imperative, he added.

“Seafarers are not just key workers; they are also humans responsible for 90 per cent of global trade. It’s high time we afford them the much-needed respect they deserve,” he added.