A Time of Courage

With its Ukrainian roots and focus on the seafarer, Danica is leading the way in finding and caring for qualified crews against a backdrop of war and an ongoing pandemic.

Jensen, second from left, with his staff in Batumi, Georgia (Danica)

Published Oct 9, 2022 10:53 PM by Tony Munoz

(Article originally published in July/Aug 2022 edition.)

“At the start of Danica Crewing Specialists, our primary base of mariners were Ukrainians, and our main office was in Ukraine,” says Henrik Jensen, Founder & Managing Director. “While our headquarters are in Hamburg, our biggest crewing office was in Odesa. Because of this terrible situation with the war in Ukraine, we have now opened an operational office in Limassol to act as a regional coordination center.”

The Russian invasion of Ukraine began on February 24, 2022 when Putin announced his intention to  demilitarize and “denazify” Ukraine. Immediately after the announcement, Russia launched missile and air strikes across Ukraine including on the capital of Kyiv. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy enacted martial law and a general mobilization of all male Ukrainian citizens between the ages of 18 and 60 and banned them from leaving the country.   

The invasion has displaced almost 13 million Ukrainians with more than six million fleeing the country and another seven million leaving their homes and seeking refuge elsewhere. It also further aggravated a growing shortage of seafarers worldwide that had begun two years earlier with the onset of COVID-19.

Ukraine accounts for roughly 77,000 seafarers – 47,000 officers and 30,000 ratings. Russian and Ukrainian mariners together account for about 14 percent of officers and 15 percent of ratings, a significant proportion of the world’s approximately two million seafarers. Crewing ships had already been a challenging situation because of COVID-19 as crews were subject to travel restrictions and were often quarantined onboard for months beyond IMO statutory limits.

“Any industry where 15 percent of the workforce more or less falls out will have a problem,” says Jensen. “Even owners not using Eastern European crew will feel a knock-on effect as owners traditionally using Ukrainian and Russian crew turn to other nationalities.”

There are other problems as well. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is overwhelming shipping companies’ ability to hire seafarers. Since the war began it’s become difficult for Russians to obtain travel visas and get paid due to Russian bank sanctions, and it’s problematic to mix Russian and Ukrainian crews. Several shipping companies have declined to hire Russian seafarers entirely.

The stress on Ukrainian mariners has been tremendous because many of their families have fled the country or been forced to relocate. Many do not want to return to Ukraine and have extended onboard contracts. Ukrainian national marine licenses have been extended, but no new licenses are being issued, which is affecting job opportunities for Ukrainians.

In the meantime, the Ukrainian maritime authorities have established a system where Ukrainian seafarers can now undertake online the necessary courses and exams to renew their certificates when their five-year cycle expires. In addition, the Polish maritime administration has established a system for extending Ukrainian certificates.

“When the war broke out, about 60 percent of Ukrainian seafarers were onboard,” Jensen explains. “A few of them wanted to return home immediately when the war started to join the army or be with their families, but the majority stayed onboard, and when their tenure came to an end they asked to stay longer. In general, shipping companies were able to cope, including Danica. However, in the past few months the situation has changed. Many of the Ukrainian seafarers’ families have been able to leave the country and are now in the E.U. As soon as their families are out of Ukraine, the seafarers onboard want to join them. This is of course understandable, but now it creates a shortage of relievers while other relievers are still not able to leave Ukraine.”

With the growing shortage of professional mariners, salaries for onboard personnel are rising quickly, and there are no quick solutions due to the professional licenses required to meet the IMO’s STCW certifications along with logging verifiable time at sea.

A Different Kind of Company

“Our ambition is to be the crewing partner for demanding shipping companies,” says Jensen, “those with high standards and high expectations, and to deliver crews who can fulfill our clients’ business goals.”

To do so, the company employs one of the strictest screening procedures in the business, especially for senior officers, and offers leadership training courses for officers and safety training courses for ratings. It screens candidate backgrounds, authenticates licenses and verifies sea service including navigational skills and knowledge. It charts the candidate’s behavior and ability to communicate and interact with other crew members, which is critical for successful ship operations.

Asked if Danica is the world’s biggest crew supply company, he replies, “No, and we will not be. There are not enough crews who can pass our strict pre-employment screening process.”

Jensen grew up in a seafaring family in Denmark. Both of his grandfathers were professional mariners, and his uncle was a marine pilot. During summer vacations from school, he would join his uncle on pilotage voyages in the Denmark fjords and deep-sea waters, which sparked his interest in becoming a deck officer and ship’s captain.

He served as an officer on container ships, bulk carriers and ferries and eventually took command of seismic vessels. When not sailing, he earned advanced degrees in business organization and human resource management.

Eventually, he came ashore with the opportunity to work as a safety superintendent and crewing officer for the seismic company. He went to Greece to oversee operations for a Danish-Greek ferry and soon became the fleet director and managing director for another Danish ferry company. He spent nine years with Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement in Germany, rising to Group HR-Marine Manning Director.

In 2009 he cofounded Nordic Hamburg Shipmanagement and in 2013 founded Danica Crewing Specialists. His years of hands-on experience managing crews and fleets made it clear that there was a need for quality recruitment and manning services, for a company that was independently owned and acted entirely on behalf of its customers.

“We are not a ship manager,” Jensen emphasizes. “Our focus is to be the HR (human resources) partner for our clients, who are typically shipowning companies with their own in-house technical management but with a fleet size that does not have the economies of scale to have their own recruitment offices, screening, logistics and training. We are their extended arm or department.”

Today, the company has eight offices in six countries and a network of more than 350,000 officers and ratings. It has long been recruiting in the Philippines, India and Indonesia. While looking to open more offices, the pandemic put further expansion plans on hold. But it did open an office in Batumi, Georgia recently and – in addition to transferring much of the Odesa operation to Limassol – has partnered with a crewing company in the Philippines.  

Blue Water Crisis

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, more than 2,000 seafarers were stranded on 94 vessels at Ukrainian ports. The IMO and several governments insisted that the Russian Federation honor the “blue safe maritime corridor” in the high-risk areas of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. Russia deferred, saying it would establish a humanitarian corridor once ships were outside Ukraine’s territorial waters.

Today, Ukrainian ports are at MARSEC (maritime security) level 3, which means the ports will remain closed for entry and exit or that ships sail at their own peril. Sea mines have been laid at port approaches and ports blocked with sunken barges and cranes. Many ships in the region no longer have sufficient crew onboard to sail.

“We still have about 1,000 Ukrainians, mainly senior officers, deployed now,” Jensen says. “There are still Danica employees and crew in distress in Ukraine, many of whom have lost their properties and possessions. Meanwhile, our company supports these employees and their families, even those who have escaped to other countries.”

While the Russians have signed an accord to allow grain ships to sail from Ukraine and through the Black Sea, there is massive congestion of vessels near Sulina and Bystre, south of Snake Island, trying to transit through Romania to the Danube. Officials estimate it will take months to get ships moving again. Meanwhile, IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim and international aid organizations have been trying to reprovision ships, which need vital supplies for stranded seafarers in the Black Sea region.

A Time of Courage

There are currently around 75,000 commercial ships in the world trading fleet totaling 2,095 million deadweight tons, which has doubled since 2007. By 2025, the world fleet will exceed 80,000 ships, and the demand for licensed mariners will continue to increase.

Added to the war in Ukraine and the ongoing pandemic, that presents a real challenge for companies like Danica. Where will the seafarers come from?

“That’s a very valid question,” he says, “and it worries me a lot. Seafaring has been an attractive career for decades in the main sourcing countries. A career at sea offers challenging jobs, great responsibility, and a steady and relatively high income – indeed for senior ranks in some countries even an extremely high salary. However, IT companies and big engineering companies are also in the market to recruit the same young talent, also offering relatively high salaries, interesting jobs and, in some cases, remote work and flexible hours, which gives a work-life balance that is more attractive for young people.”

His advice? Offer competitive wages, be open with seafarers onboard about their future prospects by having clear career plans and training in place to demonstrate a bright future ahead for them, and speed up the approval process for job candidates so they don’t accept another job in the interim.

“If you want competent crew then your wages must be on par with the market,” he counsels. “And my advice is that it is better to adjust your general wage scale to be realistic rather than keeping it low and then having to negotiate with every seafarer – a situation that can easily get out of control.”

At present, seafarers who are ready to return to sea are often in the fortunate position of having multiple job offers to choose from, so speed is of the essence to secure reliable crew. Jensen says he is encouraging owners to quickly give firm job offers to candidates whom Danica deems suitable: “In this current market, if the candidate has to wait for interviews and decisions, even for a few days, they might well go to other employers.”

And to retain off-signing seafarers, it’s more important than ever that they be fully informed about their next assignment in good time, at the very latest when signing off. “This avoids them feeling insecure in their positions and accepting other employment during their vacation,” he recommends.

Tony Munoz is Founder, Publisher & Editor-in-Chief of The Maritime Executive.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.