Shipping Agents at Sharp End of COVID Crewing Crisis
The personal experience of one Inchcape marine services manager based in St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands paints a vivid picture of the current crisis and how shipping agents are negotiating all sorts of hurdles to get exhausted and homesick crew members repatriated, and new ones boarded.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been especially cruel on seafarers, often trapped on ships for months on end far away from their loved ones. Those who were looking forward to going home in around March or April basically couldn’t, as permission for crew changes were denied in almost every port around the world. For a while it looked as if restrictions would be lifted, but many places are closing back down again due to a surge in new cases.
While seafarers have been bearing the brunt of restrictions, shipping agents and crewing managers the world over have been busy trying to find solutions and workarounds. Although this particular weekend in August took all Joanna Walker could sling at it, as a shipping agent she always knew what she was getting into.
“My first interview after graduating with a BSc in Maritime Administration was with Biehl & Company in Houston,” she says. “So, what do you know about shipping? the manager asked me. Well, I replied, I’ve got a maritime degree and I grew up in the business. But in shipping I also know that whatever can go wrong, will go wrong, usually at the worst possible time and in the worst possible place.”
That candid answer helped land her the job. Fast forward to now and the COVID-19 pandemic is certainly ticking some of those boxes. “It was totally unexpected and it’s been a huge challenge, scrambling to adapt while trying to continue to provide the best services for customers,” she says.
With the lockdown, crew changes suddenly became a thing of the past, not only at St. Croix but most other ports around the world. “Later, as the restrictions eased we were able to do a couple of changeovers. The biggest challenge was the terminal, with no taxis or transport providers allowed in. Then with poor flight availability and the terminal schedule and so on, it soon became too uncertain, so we had to start saying no again,” Joanna says.
Then along came an oil tanker managed by one of our Crew Logistics HUB customers. “Please can we have a crew change?” “Sorry, no, I’m afraid we can’t do it.” “But we really need it.” “I understand but there’s really no way we can do it.” “But why can’t you do it?” “And so it went on,” Joanna says. The vessel was allowed to discharge but was then told to wait offshore for a few days before coming in to load. “That actually opened a window for us to do the crew change by launch, without having to transit the terminal,” she says.
US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) were willing to allow Inchcape to use the launch if the crew change was approved, as the ship would be within port limits and hadn’t been cleared for departure. Inchcape submitted the request then dug in to wait. “The approval process was finally completed two hours before the first crew member was due to board his inbound flight. Permission was granted but we were advised this would be the last time for some time,” Joanna says.
Then the fun began. “We told the principal we’d have to get the off-signers tested prior to flying, as per airline rules,” Joanna says. “But after the incoming crew were already on their way we were asked by the vessel manager to test them as well. The first off-signers disembarked and were taken to a local clinic and given the COVID antibodies test, which is sufficient for our local American Airlines desk to allow them to check in.
“Next problem: the on-signers needed the proper polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, test, but the local clinic couldn’t do that,” Joanna says. “For a while it looked like the whole thing was about to unravel before our eyes, hours before the plane was about to arrive with all seven new crew. It was nail-biting but in the nick of time we managed to find a clinic that would test them. Next challenge: would we get the results in time for the launch to still make it to ship?”
Joanna takes her hat off to Clinical Laboratories in St. Croix. “They were awesome. They rushed the results and we managed to get everyone safely on board before dark.”
Three more crew members disembarked the next day, processed by CBP and duly tested. “It was Saturday and the cook got on his plane one very happy man. He’d been on the ship for 392 days!” Joanna says. The others spent the night at the Inchcape office, according to CBP quarantine rules, and were able to leave at the crack of dawn the next day.
The remaining crew including the captain and chief officer were allowed to disembark on the Monday morning following what had so far been a safe and successful handover. They were tested and brought to the Inchcape office for the night. “Simple enough, right?” Joanna says. “No! One crew member tested positive for antibodies!”
That wasn’t a big deal in itself, she says, as he wasn’t ill. He may have caught the virus months earlier but not known it, and had been confined on the ship for five months. “But it was a mad scramble to get him to the other clinic for the PCR test. We begged them to jump the queue. Four hours later we got a negative result. I can’t tell you how relieved we were!”
Joanna says all this wouldn’t have been possible without the support of a great team. “Manning check-in at the office, answering e-mails when I was too busy, taking paperwork over to CBP, overseeing the testing, cleaning the accommodation after each wave of guests, they were there every step of the way,” she says.
“A lot of jobs are 90% boredom and 10% sheer terror. An agent’s job is exactly the reverse. And that weekend was 100% sheer terror! But we just had to battle through and find a way to make it happen.”
While Joanna says it was a white-knuckle ride, it most probably won’t be the last and she is fully aware that agents around the world are facing the same kind of situation on a daily basis.
“Few people see how much work it takes to pull off what seems impossible. But it’s important to remember we aren’t alone; as an Inchcape agent especially, I can pick up the phone and call any of our offices around the world and speak to someone who understands,” she says.
Three cheers for them and all the dedicated seafarers making our world go around.
This article is sponsored by Inchcape Shipping Services.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.