Essential, invisible: COVID has 200,000 merchant sailors stuck at sea
By TAYLOR TELFORD AND JACOB BOGAGE | The Washington Post | Published: April 10, 2021
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Brian Mossman says he has read "Moby Dick" nearly 200 times. The 61-year-old captain of the container ship Maersk Sentosa says he revisits the Melville classic nearly every voyage, because each time reveals something new about the people who take to the sea: people like him and the two dozen merchant mariners on his crew.
Sentosa means "a place of peace and tranquility" in Malay, but Mossmansays the 1,048-foot super carrier is more of a "floating industrial plant." It runs around-the-clock hauling cargo to 14 ports in eight countries, from the eastern United States to the Middle East, supplying embassies and military bases and delivering humanitarian aid.
The work is risky, demanding and essential - 90% of the world's goods are transported by water - and merchant mariners typically work in months-on, months-off rotations to guard against burnout and the pervasivedangers of life at sea. But in March 2020, a global pandemic gave rise to new and unprecedented pressures: Shipping ports and airports closed. Cargo carriers prohibited shore leave for their crews.
And Mossman was faced with a simple fact: If one person became infected, the virus would spread greedily and easily in the close confines of the ship.
No lessons from Captain Ahab, his 38 years of seafaring or those of his forebears - a line of "able-bodied seamen" dating to 1757 - prepared Mossman for what came next: His crew was trapped aboard, with no certainty on when they could go home.
Mossman was forced to tell his mariners they had to keep working, a conversation that was replicated by captains and ship operators around the world. The U.S. Navy instituted a "gangways up" order that prevented military and civilian sailors alike from leaving their ships. Ports in even the most avidly seafaring nations refused to allow mariners ashore.
Roughly 400,000 seafarers were stranded on ships around the globe at the peak of the "crew change crisis" in late 2020, according to the International Maritime Organization; now, about 200,000 are stuck. Some have been at sea for as long as 20 months, though 11 months is the maximum time allowed by the IMO. The situation threatens to grow more dire in the coming months, industry experts say, as mariners desperately try to access to coronavirus vaccines, their situation complicated by a web of complex logistics and workplaces often situated thousands of miles offshore.
World leaders have called the crew change crisis a humanitarian emergency. It is also a cautionary tale about essential but oft-ignored global supply chains. Industry officials told The Washington Post there's been an increase in severe injuries and mental health concerns - including suicide at sea - as mariners have yearned to leave their ships and return home.
The industry also is grappling with staffing shortages while seeing unprecedented demand for its services, a situation that worsened when a container ship ran aground last month in the Suez Canal and blocked the crucial waterway for nearly a week.
Mossman and his crew weren't relieved until Aug. 5 - more than 10 weeks past their contract. Looking back, he said, it's hard to say whether it was the best voyage of his life or the worst. He's proud to have gotten the crew off safely, without illness or injury, but the stress took its toll. When he finally got home, he says, his blood pressure and blood sugar werethrough the roof. And the extra time away from his four children put a strain on the family.
He's back out at sea now, though still unvaccinated. But between the new dangers at sea and at home, the situation feels like wartime, he says.
"Those people over there, our soldiers, our sailors, they're depending on us to bring everything, from steaks to bullets," Mossman said. "Who am I to say 'Oh I can't go back, I can't do this anymore'? Somebody's got to do it."
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Wander aboard a cargo vessel, pry open a container and enter a world that's both eminently recognizable and bizarre: bins filled with flat-screen televisions, pallets of clothing and fabric, drums of chemicals, car parts and plastics, all piled high on a ship that would dwarf a football field. It's less a ship than floating warehouse, with tiny apartments for the crew.
"Without seafarers, there is no world trade," said Christine Cabau Woehrel, the executive vice president for industrial assets and operations at the cargo carrier CMA CGM.
Consumers tend to think of commerce in terms of finished parts or at least in terms of large components, said Frank Kenney, the director of markets at Cleo, a supply-chain integration firm. But maritime cargo allows it all to travel together on the same ships, keeping prices lower for both producers and, ultimately, consumers.
"When you stop and think, 'How do we consume freight from China?' and the high cost of moving things via airplane," Kenney said, "you have to come to the conclusion that, 'Wow, there's so many things in my house that were sitting in a container on a ship.'"
Not much can stop or slow the methodical pace of world shipping. There is such a high volume of trade - and demand for consumer goods has only increased with the surge in online shopping - that a busy port or seemingly isolated problems on one ship or within the workforce do not have much of an impact on the flow of goods.
It takes a true disaster, such as a grounded ship blocking a major waterway, or a crew-change crisis, to stall the pace of the industry. The consequences are immediate for consumers, producers, dockworkers, transportation brokers and others: Products remain at sea or a continent away, and prices go up. But behind the scenes, the mariners are caught in the middle.
"If you have a just-in-time supply chain that is dependent upon those goods at that time . . . one little hiccup in that supply chain is very, very disruptive," said Ira Douglas, the vice president for labor relations at Crowley Maritime, a major U.S. shipping services company.
Maintaining licenses and certifications is essential in the maritime industry, and this hinges on in-person instruction and hands-on experience with equipment. But the International Maritime Organization has been offering waivers during the pandemic as maritime academies have halted classroom instruction and workers have not been able to leave their ships. Without proper certification, workers are unable to get new jobs.
Gerard Pannell is the director of training with the American Maritime Officers, the nation's largest union for deck- and engine-licensed mariners, at the STAR Center in Dania Beach, Florida. The facility has resumed training at 60% of its pre-pandemic capacity, but Pannell said the coronavirus pandemic has created a backlog in vital licensing and credentialing that will limit the ability of many workers to get jobs and advance their careers.
"It's going to take five years for this ripple in the cycle to work itself out," Pannell said.
Jake O'Boyle said the pandemic is "expediting" his retirement. The 66-year-old became a merchant mariner because he wanted to see the world, and he said a life of sailing on freighters and bulk carriers, oil tankers and container ships has taken him to more than 50 countries. But although the pandemic is beginning to ease, the kind of life he has known on the water seems distant.
"Not a lot of light on the horizon," he said. "The job has become a commitment to livelihood only."
O'Boyle, the captain of the Maersk Durban, which runs cargo and military aid between Egypt and Turkey, was stranded with his crew over the summer. It took the intervention of the U.S. State Department to finally get everyone home, he said. Some of his crew had been at sea for six months by that point.
Now he worries that the industry will have a hard time attracting young talent, further weakening the U.S. foothold in international trade. He called the shrinking workforce an Achilles' heel for national security.
American mariners make up just a fraction of the 1.7 million worldwide who move about11 billion tons of goods by ship each year, according to the International Chamber of Shipping. Global maritime trade is worth about $14 trillion.
"It's frightening to me that we are such a small presence in the maritime world," O'Boyle said. "Once it's dead, it's dead. And we are on life support in the American Merchant Marine."
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The pandemic's disruption of the global shipping industry has robbed workers of some of their most basic rights, experts say. In December, the International Labour Organization ruled that governments had failed to uphold the minimum standards of seafarer rights as laid out by the 2006 Maritime Labor Convention, including access to shore leave, medical care and repatriation.
"This is an unprecedented humanitarian and economic crisis," said Fred Kenney, the director of legal and external affairs for the International Maritime Organization.
As a result, workers are struggling to contain physical and mental exhaustion. In a September crew change survey by the International Transport Workers Federation, 60% of seafarers said it was "more likely than not" that they or crewmates would be "involved in an accident that could harm human life, property or the marine environment due to fatigue while aboard.
"Extended time on vessels is worsening fatigue," Allianz warned in its 2020 Shipping & Safety report, adding that "human error is a contributing factor in 75 to 96% of marine incidents."
Any mistake or accident on the water can make waves throughout the global supply chain. The Ever Given, the Taiwanese container ship that became lodged in the Suez Canal, delayed roughly $10 billion a day of trade through one of the world's most critical waterways for the movement of oil and manufactured goods.
The ship's operator, Evergreen Marine, declined to comment for this report. Several U.S. federal agencies, including the Maritime Administration, the Committee on the Marine Transportation System and the Coast Guard, declined interview requests.
"I hope this incident will remind governments of the vital role that seafarers and shipping plays in keeping world trade moving," Guy Platten, the secretary general of the International Chamber of Shipping, said in a statement about the Ever Given. "Seafarers must not be forgotten as soon as this incident is over."
Ship captains, unions and international maritime organizations all told The Post that reports of suicides, at least anecdotally, have increased during the pandemic. But many factors make it difficult to track such deaths. No central body captures global data on this issue.
A civilian mariner on the Navy cargo ship USNS Amelia Earhart killed himself in July after reportedly struggling with extended time at sea, according to news reports. Shortly after, the heads of three of the largest Merchant Marine unions wrote to Rear Adm. Michael Wettlaufer, the commander of the Military Sealift Command, to voice concerns about the "gangways up" restrictions that barred mariners from leaving their vessels in port and other mariners from coming aboard as relief.
"We are genuinely worried that if restrictions are not eased, the likelihood of shipboard emotional instability will increase," they wrote, cautioning that stress-related fatigue could lead to more injuries and ultimately create security vulnerabilities at military installations around the globe.
What about us, aren't we heroes? We're spending our lives here. We don't know when we're coming back home. We're all prisoners and our freedom is sacrificed in order to maintain worldwide trading.
Roger Harris, the executive director of the International Seafarers' Welfare and Assistance Network, which runs hotlines for nine major shipping companies, said the organization experienced a tripling of its call volume triple during the worst of the crew change crisis. It is still receiving far more calls than it did before the pandemic, Harris said, including from seafarers grappling with thoughts of suicide and twice the usual number of reports of fights aboard ships.
Unions and labor advocates say there have been numerous instances in the past year of mariners suffering medical emergencies aboard and not being able to go ashore for vital treatment. In a Facebook video from late January, Christo Mavroulis, a Greek captain, described the ordeal of trying to get medical care for one crew member off the coast of China. Mavroulis spent hours negotiating with port authorities but was unable to persuade them to take the ill man - a Chinese national - to the hospital.
"What about us, aren't we heroes?" Mavroulis said in the video. "We're spending our lives here. We don't know when we're coming back home. We're all prisoners and our freedom is sacrificed in order to maintain worldwide trading."
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The merchant mariners who crew the U.S. fleet endure roughly the same process most Americans face to get coronavirus vaccine shots: They're on their own.
The United Nations called for the world's governments to designate seafarers and other marine personnel as "key workers" during the pandemic. But as of late March, just 56 of 174 IMO member states had designated seafarers as key workers.
Nations with international ports have a patchwork of regulations regarding if and when crew members are allowed to leave their ships, let alone get vaccinated. American sailors face similar difficulties.
I don't want to take the shot away from someone who's deserving, but [covid-19] spreads like wildfire, and the ship will be out of commission at least two weeks, most of the time longer. When it's tied up like that,... all the things that society needs to cope with this pandemic is also taken out of service.
Vaccine distribution is left up to state governors with guidelines from the Department of Homeland Security. Industry officials say they've had difficulty swaying state leaders to move maritime workers up in line because of the size and nature of the industry.
With fewer than 15,000 merchant mariners in the United States, competing for resources at the state level is difficult, they say, because governors tend to prioritize the industries that drive their economies. Though sectors as diverse as vehicle manufacture and agriculture are reliant on maritime trade, seafarers are too few - and distant - to garner much attention.
And because mariners are off work for weeks at a time between assignments, many do not live near ports. When their next contracts begin, they travel to meet their ships, which could be docked a few states away or halfway around the world. That makes vaccine access a logistical nightmare.
One of Crowley Maritime's captains, Douglas said, was not eligible for a vaccine in New Hampshire, his home state. He ended up getting the shot in Jacksonville, Fla., before boarding the ship for his most recent voyage, then got his second shot at another Florida port several weeks later.
Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico have been more responsive to the need to vaccinate maritime workers, but most states have been hit-or-miss in their approach, Douglas said.
Ed Hanley, the vice president for labor relations and marine safety and standards at Maersk, has argued in letters to state health officials that his crews should be treated as front-line workers because of the duties they perform aboard ships. Hanley has sought access to vaccine shots for the mariners in charge of ships' fire response teams and for those who have medical training. So far, the strategy has worked.
"I don't want to take the shot away from someone who's deserving, but [covid-19] spreads like wildfire, and the ship will be out of commission at least two weeks, most of the time longer," Hanley said. "When it's tied up like that, everything that's on board, all the medicine, the PPE, all the things that society needs to cope with this pandemic is also taken out of service."
The threat of the virus hangs heavy - not only in the risk of infection, but also in the steep consequences of disruption on a vessel. On such tightly crewed ships, having a single person out of action puts a significant strain on the rest. If the cook is sick, the crew still has to eat. Someone must always be standing watch.
Elizabeth Livi, a 24-year-old third mate from Fairlawn, N.J., worked on a ship with multiple covid-19 cases over the summer. She didn't become ill, but she said she saw the ripple effects. People were anxious, overworked, distracted. The ship was delayed a month.
"Every person's job is important," Livi said. "It's not like somebody can sit out and the ship will just operate normally."
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Life at sea, which typically has merchant mariners home half the year and away for the other, places tough demands on workers and their families.
Sara Gasper is a port dispatcher in Houston. Her husband, Nick Gasper, is a captain with Maersk. They have a 3-year-old daughter.
"It's hard when he's gone," Sara said. "He misses lots of things." Nick takes pieces of home with him when he goes, like packets of pictures Sara puts together and Starbucks Cafe Verona, his favorite blend of coffee. "If I could bring my family, I would," Nick said.
Jason Woronowicz, 41, owes his life to the water. His father was a commercial fisherman in Long Island, N.Y. His mother worked at a bar by the water owned by his grandmother. They fell in love.
Woronowicz has been working on boats his whole life as a merchant mariner - on tugboats and cruise ships, now as a third mate on a Columbia University ocean research vessel. On March 7, 2020, he got married in a quiet beach ceremony in Florida just before the world shut down. He went to sea five days later.
"Didn't have much of a honeymoon," he said.
In mid-March, both of Woronowicz's parents were hospitalized with covid-19. With the world in lockdown, there was no way for him to get home, so he spent his time on the ship's shoddy satellite phone while making decisions about life support and ventilators. His wife was there, wearing a Tyvek suit, when his father died on March 31. The family waited weeks for the funeral so that Woronowicz could be there.
"To this minute, I don't remember flying home," Woronowicz said.
He had to look at the logbooks to pull the pieces together. As a merchant mariner, Woronowicz is used to missing holidays at home, and births and weddings. He had tried mentally to prepare for the possibility that he would be at sea when one of his parents died.
"In this industry, there's always a 50/50 chance something like this is going to happen while you're gone, but I didn't expect it to be like this," Woronowicz said. "I always hoped it would happen when I was around."
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The uncertainty surrounding the pandemic has exacerbated the tensions of life at sea, creating a mental health crisis among workers, experts and advocates say.
"Most of us like to have some semblance or illusion of control for our lives and livelihood," said the Rev. Mark Nestlehutt, the president and executive director of the Seamen's Church Institute, the largest welfare organization serving mariners and seafarers in North America. "One of the things that weighs on seafarers stuck at sea is the lack of control. It can be hard to cope when you have no sense of when things are going to be normal."
Marissa Baker, an assistant professor at the University of Washington who is conducting a mental health survey of U.S. mariners in partnership with the Coast Guard, said many have been reporting worsening sleep and deteriorating mental health. But she also said she's seen a greater receptiveness to mental health resources.
Every time I'm on a vessel, I always say, 'Thank you so much for your service, thank you for your sacrifice, thank you for being here. Without you I have nothing, literally.'
The tension workers feel in being "essential yet invisible" has surfaced repeatedly in the responses to the survey, Baker said.
"They're a vital part of the supply chain, but it's something most of us take for granted."
Many major shipping lines are increasing Internet bandwidth on their vessels so sailors can more easily connect with their families back home, executives at Maersk, CGM CMA and Hapag-Lloyd said in interviews.
Maersk and CGM CMA have chartered flights, executives said, to change crews. The crew change crisis, they warn, cuts both ways for mariners. Some can't get off their ships. Others can't travel to join their ships, meaning they're at home without pay.
Silke Muschitz, the head of marine personnel for Hapag-Lloyd, said the company has begged governments worldwide to stop stigmatizing seafarers as carriers of disease.
"If you're not afraid of a seafarer, then why would you restrict them?" she said.
Maersk, Hanley said, has started paying its sailors bonuses to compensate them for remaining aboard ship at all times, even in ports that allow seafarers limited shore leave. The company has also picked up the tab for crew members' personal snacks and groceries, he said.
"It's little stuff," Hanley said, "but it makes them think, 'At least someone's thinking about us.'"
Cora DiDomenico, a chaplain with the Seamen's Church Institute, is tasked with caring for workers' mental, emotional and spiritual well-being. The 27-year-old hangs out in the ports of New York and New Jersey, boarding anywhere from three to six vessels a day, trying to cram as much care and practical assistance as she can into each visit.
DiDomenico has always kicked off her visits by offering items the crew might need: SIM cards, groceries, help sending money home. But in the era of no shore leave, DiDomenico has become a de facto delivery driver. She has picked up prescriptions for a seafarer who ran out of vital medication after his contract was extended. She's been delivering packages from the sister of a mariner who lives in New York but can't get off the ship in his own hometown. She's gotten used to making runs to Dunkin' for 10 dozen doughnuts or to McDonald's for 20 Quarter Pounders.
The people with whom DiDomenico works are accustomed to being invisible. It rankles her that just a few years ago, she, too, knew nothing about this world; now she imagines bringing her future children to the port and worries about finding books for them in which shipping is represented.
"Every time I'm on a vessel, I always say, 'Thank you so much for your service, thank you for your sacrifice, thank you for being here. Without you I have nothing, literally,'" DiDomenico said. "But a lot of times when I say that to a seafarer, they kind of dismiss it."
Before the pandemic, DiDomenico would visit during coffee breaks or lunchtime, when all the crew would have an opportunity to rest and speak with her. Now, she usually can go only as far as the gangway. She's learned to communicate with just her eyes. But the crew still see her white helmet with the words "SCI Chaplain" and come, with heartbreaking frankness, and share their troubles.
"I just need to let you know that my father died," a mariner might say.
Or else it's, "I just had to tell you: I just had a baby girl."
When she asks "Have you shared this with anyone?" the answer is generally no. But they light up without fail when she asks to see pictures.
In the past year, DiDomenico has seen more "depression, anxiety and isolation" than ever before. People talk more about their families, and about their sacrifices. The uncertainty - about when they'll go home or even set foot off their vessels - is hard for all to bear.
Sometimes, after visits, DiDomenico returns to her car and cries.
"Nobody signed up for this," she said.