KOCHI: Borders remain closed. Airstrips are shut. But merchant vessels continue to traverse the seas with the onerous task of connecting continents and keeping supply chains open. While the coronavirus pandemic wreaks havoc across the world, seafarers cannot afford to shirk responsibility. In these trying times, however, they find it hard to procure provisions. “Over 90 per cent of India’s trade is done across the seas and we are risking our lives to keep the wheels of the economy turning,” K Bobby Kuruvilla, chief engineer of the vessel M T Neptune, told TNIE.
An Ernakulam native, he has been at sea for the past six months. “The times are tough, but the ostracism pains us,” he said. “Countries deny us permission to step on their soil and they are apprehensive about extending a helping hand. We find it difficult to get provisions, technical support and spares. While all countries need the supplies we deliver, they treat us as aliens.” Bobby’s ship set off from Galveston in the US on March 26 and is currently at Rotterdam in the Netherlands.
The contracts of many seafarers have expired. But they are stranded at sea due to the restrictions imposed by various countries. There is a communication breakdown which poses challenges to merchant vessels. “We hear disturbing news and want to be with our families,” Bobby said. “But travel and quarantine restrictions keep us confined to the vessel. Sailors often face challenges that are unforeseen. We battle heavy seas, strong winds and even pirates, but the challenge posed by Covid-19 is entirely different. It has brought the world to its knees. I had joined duty on October 26 and am unsure when I can return home.” TNIE understands that similar is the case with several other Malayalee shipmen stuck in their vessels battling severe physical and mental stress.
LIVES OF SEAFARERS TRAPPED IN VESSELS
Bose Prasad G, second engineer of Wallem Ship Management, wanted to be with his family by the first week of April as his wife is in an advanced stage of pregnancy. However, the global outbreak has scuttled his plans. “I had joined the ship before the outbreak and, like every seafarer, I am worried about my family,” Bose said. “I had promised my wife that I will be with her for the delivery as she is under stress. My parents are aged and they have limitations in running around. Now I have accepted the reality. Most countries have shut their airspaces and are not permitting repatriation of seafarers.
The crew in my ship have resolved to stand together and prepare ourselves to face the challenges.” All activities including signing off from the ships have been postponed indefinitely, leaving the sailors depressed. “Any seafarer joining duty will be looking forward to the signing off day as life at sea is always stressful. As it gets postponed, a sense of insecurity creeps in,” he said. Captain B Muralee Krishnan, in charge of a vessel operated by Master Synergy Maritime, is struggling to keep his crew motivated. Though the ship will dock at Texas in the US within a couple of days, the crew - scheduled to sign off at Texas - will not be able to leave the ship.
“No crew member has stepped out of the ship during the past 50 days,” he said. “Our lives are quarantined inside the ship. A few of my crew members have packed their bags to sign off at Texas. They were crestfallen as the news about the blanket ban on crew changes arrived. I am struggling to cheer them up. We are hopeful that a few countries will allow crew change by mid-April. The situation in the US is a concern and we will have to remain in the ship till the situation improves.”
The safest place for them now is the ship, said George Johny, the chief officer of a ship currently docked at Istanbul in Turkey. “We feel safe at sea than ashore. Reports from various ports are scary. I started sailing in November 2003 and have witnessed outbreaks like swine flu, Ebola and others. But never have I come across such a situation,” he said.