BANGKOK — Ralph Santillan, a merchant seaman from the Philippines, hasn’t had shore leave in half a year. It has been 18 months since he reported for duty on his ship, which hauls corn, barley and other commodities around the world. It has been even longer since he saw his wife and son.
“There’s nothing I can do,” Mr. Santillan said late last month from his ship, a 965-foot bulk carrier off South Korea. “I have to leave to God whatever might happen here.”
His time on the ship, where he spends long days chipping rust off the deck or cleaning out cargo holds, was supposed to have ended in February, after an 11-month stint — the maximum length for a seafarer’s contract.
But the Covid-19 pandemic led countries to start closing borders and refusing to let sailors come ashore. For cargo ships around the world, the process known as crew change, in which seamen like Mr. Santillan are replaced by new ones as their contracts expire, ground nearly to a halt.
In June, the United Nations called the situation a “growing humanitarian and safety crisis.” And there is still no solution in sight.
Last month, the International Transport Workers’ Federation, a seafarers’ union, estimated that 300,000 of the 1.2 million crew members at sea were essentially stranded on their ships, working past the expiration of their original contracts and fighting isolation, uncertainty and fatigue.
“This floating population, many of which have been at sea for over a year, are reaching the end of their tether,” Guy Platten, secretary general of the International Chamber of Shipping, which represents shipowners, said on Friday. “If governments do not act quickly and decisively to facilitate the transfer of crews and ease restrictions around air travel, we face the very real situation of a slowdown in global trade.”
Some crew members have begun refusing to work, forcing ships to stay in port. And many in the shipping industry fear that the stress and exhaustion will lead to accidents, perhaps disastrous ones.
“Owners made their contract so short for a reason,” said Joost Mes, the director of Avior Marine, a maritime recruitment agency in Manila. “The consequences are coming closer, and the margins of safety are getting less.”
Seafarers have to stay vigilant. Standing in the wrong spot on deck, or missing a step on a long, narrow ladder, could mean injury or death. A distracted watch officer could miss an approaching vessel until it is too late.
“I can see the fatigue and stress in their faces,” Mr. Santillan said in July from his ship, referring to the five men who worked with him on the deck. “I’m sure they can see it on my face.” He said they sometimes worked 23-hour days to meet their schedules.
Three of the 20 crew members on a bulk carrier that ran aground off Mauritius in late July, spilling 1,000 tons of oil into the pristine waters, were on extended contracts, according to Lloyd’s List, a maritime intelligence company. The cause of the accident has not been determined, but the seafarers’ union said it pointed to the potential consequences of having an overworked crew. Two of the ships’ officers have been charged with unsafe navigation.
In a June survey by the seafarers’ union, many crew members on extended contracts said exhaustion was affecting their ability to focus. Some compared themselves to prisoners or slaves, according to the survey, and some said they had considered suicide.
Members of one crew had to shave their heads after running out of shampoo because no one could go ashore for provisions, according to the survey. Another ship’s captain had to pull the tooth of a seafarer who could not go ashore to see a dentist, a shipping company executive said.
“If someone is hurt, there is no hospital,” said Burcu Akceken, the chief officer of a chemical tanker that was anchored off Dakar, Senegal, who is from Turkey.
Many stranded crew members said governments should do more to accommodate crew changes. “Ports and countries want the cargo, but when it comes to the crew who are bringing the cargo to them, they are not helping us,” said Nilesh Mukherjee, the chief officer on a tanker carrying liquid petroleum gas, who is from India.
Even in normal times, replacing a crew member involves complex logistics, said Frederick Kenney, director of legal and external affairs at the International Maritime Organization, a U.N. agency that oversees global shipping.
Leaving a ship, and getting home, requires more than just disembarking. It usually involves multiple border crossings, flights with at least one connection, and a slew of certificates, specialized visas and immigration stamps. A crew member’s replacement has to go through the same steps.
Every step in that procedure is “broken” because of the pandemic, with flights limited, border controls tightened and many consulates closed, according to Mr. Kenney. While some countries have found ways around the problem, “the rate of progress is not keeping up with the growing backlog of seafarers,” he said last week.
Some ports have exempted crew members from border restrictions, then backtracked after seafarers, arriving from their home countries to report for duty on a ship, were found to have Covid-19.
Hong Kong exempted sea as well as airline crews from a 14-day quarantine requirement, but it changed those rules in July, after the exemptions were blamed for a surge in case numbers. In Singapore, too, protocols were tightened after seafarers tested positive for the virus on arrival.
Mr. Platten, of the International Chamber of Shipping, said that if the crisis continued, vessels would inevitably stop sailing. “It’s not going to be suddenly, tomorrow, that they’re all going to stop,” he said. “It’ll be a gradual creeping up on this, and that’s a real worry for the global supply chain.”
Some ships have already been idled, at least temporarily, because seafarers refused to keep working. Under international maritime law, an undermanned ship cannot sail.
The departure of the Ben Rinnes, chartered to haul soy for Cargill from Geelong, Australia, was delayed last month after five seafarers demanded to be sent home; at least one had been working for 17 months. Cargill said that as a charterer, it did not manage crew changes, but that it had been involved in discussions that led to the crew members’ departure. In a statement, it said it joined the union’s call for “immediate government action to ensure seafarers can be repatriated.”
Another ship was idled in the Australian port of Fremantle because seafarers stopped working, and there were at least two similar cases in which crew members were allowed to disembark in Panama.
While some seafarers have extended their contracts out of a sense of duty, or because they feared being blacklisted if they didn’t, others have accused captains or employers of intimidation. The Australian maritime authorities detained the cargo ship Unison Jasper last month over accusations that its Burmese crew had been abused and forced to sign contract extensions.
Mr. Santillan, who boarded his ship in March 2019, was near the end of his contract when the pandemic hit. After a monthlong voyage from Brazil to Singapore, which was supposed to be his last stop, he was told that his flight home to the Philippines had been canceled.
It wasn’t clear to him who was responsible — the airline, his employer or the Philippine government, which, because of the pandemic, was letting only a few of its many overseas workers back into the country each day.
But border restrictions meant that Mr. Santillan wasn’t allowed onshore. And with no one to replace him, the ship would be unable to sail if he stopped working.
Fearing he’d be blacklisted if he did so, Mr. Santillan signed a new contract. Since then, he said, his captain has told him at least three times that he would be allowed to leave, but it hasn’t happened.
He and the rest of the crew try to keep one another’s spirits up, but their list of diversions is grimly short: Go to the gym, belt out some songs on the karaoke machine, or buy internet credits and scroll through Facebook, looking for something to laugh at. Mr. Santillan has watched “Pirates of the Caribbean” so many times that he has memorized it — a point of exasperation, not pride.
He still has chocolates that he bought in Brazil for his wife and their young son, but they have passed their expiration date. His son, who was a week old when Mr. Santillan left the Philippines, is now walking and talking.
Mr. Santillan said he had to resist thinking about his family while working.
“Missing someone is not allowed,” he said. “For you to focus on work, you can’t think about them. Your body is heavier when you miss someone.”