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Bulletin 8: Crew welfare in times of pandemic

News / 11-06-2020

As my colleagues have said in previous yacht bulletins, we are seeing the impact of the Covid-19 virus pandemic in all aspects of our lives.  Seafarers / yacht crew have been, and continue to be, significantly affected, often feeling powerless and faced with months on board or in hotel rooms miles from home.

As our Senior Partner, Julian Clark, said in our recent campaign to raise awareness of merchant seafarers as key workers, in From the Sea I'll come Home all seafarers have been particularly exposed.  They are not able to socially distance when at sea, or to see their families and friends.  They are generally already subject to high levels of stress. From research previously carried out by the International Seafarers’ Welfare & Assistance Network (ISWAN) into crew mental health, the conclusions for merchant seaman and also those working on yachts and superyachts showed that the numbers suffering from anxiety, depression and struggling to cope were already concerning. Since the pandemic, it is feared that those numbers have further increased with some crew feeling further isolated.

Incidents involving yachts and marine craft of all types are still happening around the world.  In terms of those which are yacht-related, on 8 June 2020 a cargo ship carrying five superyachts (names currently unknown) was at the risk of sinking in Palma de Mallorca due to an electrical fault which caused a severe list.  There have been no reported casualties but it is possible that one or more of the yachts were damaged.  If there were crew in port ready to join those yachts, watching events unfold, concerned that the yachts might be damaged beyond repair, it raises issues for them potentially regarding job security, having to potentially alter plans if the yacht is not able to sail and generally it creates uncertainty for all, particularly in the face of restrictions on travel and repatriation. 

So what happens to crew when they are unable to return home and how may this have impacted them?  We have already heard of at least three cruise ship seafarers who have taken their own lives (Tradewinds 21 May 20) and ISWAN has reported a surge in helpline calls from seafarers unable to disembark from vessels due to various restrictions.  We know also of a suicide where a seaman was struggling with depression, was unable to be repatriated, could cope no longer and took his life.  Thankfully we do not know of any similar yacht related cases, but an extension of a contract or voyage can be devastating for the crews’ mental health. 

We have been speaking to our friends at Pantaenius Yacht Insurance and are told that the most common questions they are being asked by crew are whether they are covered under the medical insurance if they become sick with Covid 19, and also they see many general questions on quarantine and repatriation. The levels of such enquiries were high, but have dropped dramatically since April/May.  On the basis that the yachts that have the full package of crew insurances in place will have access to medical care, it seems that most crew are being adequately supported (generally) in terms of their physical welfare. Pantaenius had not heard of any cases where Covid 19 had spread within a yacht, other than some rumours. As an example of stress however they gave the instance of a crew member taken ill in the Caribbean where they suspected Covid 19 was the illness. The local ambulance refused to take the crew member to hospital so the yacht had to organise a taxi.  Luckily it was eventually resolved and the crew member tested negative.

Having discussed above the significant challenges faced in repatriating crew, we asked Michelle Van der Merwe, of Pantaenius Monaco whether they had encountered any specific problems that had flowed directly from an inability to repatriate crew.  Michelle noted that they had not had any specific cases of repatriation due to Covid, but know of yachts which have had problems with crew rotation as the crew who were to start the rotations were not able to reach the yacht and indeed this is a problem that continues due to travel restrictions.  Michelle confirmed our experience that repatriating crew in general is very difficult at the moment with the flight restrictions, and also quarantine starting for return to the U.K. etc..  However in terms of medical evacuation due to Covid 19 they were pleased that they had not had any specific cases. So it seems the overall impression is that it has been contained so far. 

Speaking to others in the industry we have heard that crews have had very differing experiences. These range from being stuck for many weeks in hotel rooms having left the yacht and not being able to get home, to those where happily the Owner has generously invited them to treat the boat as their own home including use of all gym and water sports equipment.  Yacht crew are generally physically and socially active and we asked Pantaenius if they had heard of any examples as to how crew may have been inventive in overcoming the restrictions of not being able to go for their usual run along the marina, or seeing their friends.  Michelle commented that they had heard that a couple of yacht crews in Monaco port had gone into lockdown together, and that a few yachts had social interaction such as gatherings on deck. This is in direct contrast with some of the large yachts in places such as Singapore, where Michelle understands some crew were not permitted to step off the passerelle and the entire crew were in total lockdown on the yacht with food supplies being delivered. 

We finish this short article by reminding ourselves of some of the figures revealed in the research carried out by ISWAN, The Mission to Seafarers and MHG Insurance Brokers in their Report on the Welfare of Superyacht Crew (2019).  It found that 82% of those crew who responded had experienced low crew morale ‘sometimes’, ‘often’ or ‘always’.  In addition, in 2018, discrimination, harassment or bullying from owner/crew/guests was experienced by 53% of women and 30% of men ‘sometimes’, ‘often’ or ‘always’ and most commonly from the captains or senior crew.  This was live information in the sense that the crew were still on board or had only left in the few months prior to the survey. To then have your time on board extended in circumstances where you might be being bullied or harassed without knowing when that might end could prove very challenging and upsetting, and it seems likely that the 2018 percentages will have increased during lockdown. 

In relation to what can be done to assist crew and to avoid situations where they are distressed, steps have already been taken.  The obvious points are to be aware that seafarers and yacht crew are under immense stress at this time and to make sure they are aware that owners are prioritising their mental wellbeing.  Yacht managers and others will have their own parts to play no doubt in educating crew on the best practices to deal with Covid-19 such as washing hands, extra care in food preparation etc. Interacting with guests especially in charter situations might be a concern to crew. Other industries have faced situations where employees are afraid they will be asked to work in situations where they do not feel safe and that they will face dismissal if they fail to do so.  Yacht crew will be no different in facing those fears. 

Reminding crew for example of various helpline contact details is important also and to encourage them to look out for each other.  Helplines such as ISWAN’s ‘Seafarer Help’ can be seen on their website and there are email addresses, WhatsApp telephone numbers (mulit-lingual) and online live chat at www.seafarerhelp.org.  In addition to this, yacht crew should be aware of the Mission to Seafarers’ website and The Sailor’s Society, all of which contain helpful advice on their own website.  We will continue to monitor how yacht crew and seafarers generally are coping and provide updates where we can.

Rachel Butlin

Rachel Butlin Partner

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Yachts & superyachts / Yachts / Maritime