Seafarers face a myriad of challenges taking shore leave
Singapore authorities’ denied entry for incoming seafarers from China in February 2021 due to COVID-19. Other countries started to impose similar regulations, gradually normalising seafarers unable to come ashore.
The real list of reasons
Stephen Miller, The Mission to Seafarer’ regional director of East Asia pointed out: “The biggest issue about shore leave is time. Ships only make money when moving, not idling in port. So there has been a huge move to quicken turnaround times and make everything more efficient.”
He recalled the turnaround times (in Rotterdam 20years back while he was with The Mission to Seafarers) were between 18 and 36 hours, and the largest container ships were around 6,000 teu. Considering the vessels today carry over 21,000 teu, the turnaround could be eight hours. Calculating based on seafarers working three shifts: if they are in the terminal for eight hours, they are likely working or resting during two-thirds of the time onboard.
“By reducing crew onboard, you heighten the issue. There used to be more seafarers and opportunities for shore leave. Seafarers used to go shopping or to the seafarers’ centre, today they have to get what they need on the ship. Additionally, if they are onboard a tanker 15 miles away on a buoy at the end of a long pier, it is impossible to get off,” Miller elaborated.
Efficiency, commitment and political climates
Helen Sampson, director of Cardiff University’s Seafarers International Research Centre (SIRC), commented, “Even environmental considerations affect shore leave for seafarers. Ships are informed of berth availability prior, hence enabling them to time their arrivals. That results in seafarers having no opportunity to go ashore.”
“It is about making the port call as efficient as possible, saving fuel and avoiding hanging around in port. That makes sense from the environmental point of view but it does not help the seafarer. Although efficiency is important, it overlooks the seafarers’ needs,” Sampson added.
SIRC released a report on mental health and wellbeing last year and Sampson said that apart from the day they go home, seafarers reported they most enjoyed going ashore with friends and colleagues. She lamented, “Yet, there are people unable to do so. A chief officer in port will be overwhelmed with work and unlikely to go ashore. The captain would be reluctant to leave the ship.”
Political situations can also hamper disembarking. Sampson related an account where a Myanmar seafarer was onboard a vessel she shared, and was disallowed to go ashore because of political issues. In hindsight, Sampson felt the company should have avoided deploying him knowing the fixed route was such.
Philip Eastell, co-founder of the industry group Container Shipping Supporting Seafarers (CSSS) related container ship masters denied seafarers shore leave on account of the work volume. Some are only allowed to disembark for medical emergencies or deaths in the family.
He said, “Shore leave is very much defined by the category of shipping. On container ships, the nature of the business means being in port between 8 and 12 hours, allowing hardly any free time. The crew will be attending to the agencies and there are provisions to be loaded, rubbish to be removed and spare parts to be loaded. Most of the time, it is difficult for container ship crew to go ashore. A lot of container ports also impose strict immigration controls.”
Eastell also pointed out shore leave for seafarers working onboard tankers and bulk carriers is more likely as those vessels are docked longer in port. However, the reality is even harsher for seafarers with specific passports – particularly in US ports, where many nationalities are disallowed ashore.
Costs and accessibility
Another incident Sampson related was the distance between the terminals and city centre. It would cost €60 for a taxi ride to The Mission to Seafarers’ facility located in the city centre. She said, “A seafarer will avoid spending. Moreover, the fluidity of the ship’s timetable adds more pressure; restricting seafarers’ free time ashore because they must not delay the ship if loading completes ahead of schedule.”
Seafarers often rely on charities’ minibus for round trips to town or seafarer centres. However, there are ports disallow minibuses– citing health and safety rules. Seafarers get to go ashore only when stevedores are being taken to/from the ship. Many ports are reluctant to let the crew go beyond the gates.
Getting around the conundrum
Sampson advocated seafarers’ rights to provisions – such as a cafeteria outside the port, or transport to the nearest mall. It would also be beneficial to apprise seafarers of these facilities. Miller seconded the notion – adding enhanced communications between ports and seafarers would be advantageous; enabling the disembarked crew to plan their time ashore.
Miller expressed wishes for the Mission to be more responsive to seafarers through the night. “We are often shut overnight but a ship might arrive at 2200hrs and depart at 0600hrs. A seafarer may need someone to speak to,” he said.
He acknowledges a fine line between the ‘commercial side’ and the ‘humane side’ of shipping. It might be increasing automation onboard, leading to fewer seafarers’ benefitting from having more funds spent on them. “However, people prefer putting up with the situation because of salary to unemployment. The unions have to be aware that people are trying to provide for their families and they want to do the work. In a perfect world, seafarers should be able to get off the ship. In reality, it is getting harder,” Miller noted.