COLUMN | Compassion in a time of coronavirus [Tug Times]

Hong Kong Salvage Towage
Photo: Alan Loynd

In his book The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins expands upon the idea that a gene behaves not in a way that is beneficial to the carrier of the gene, but in a way that is beneficial to the gene itself.

You could not make the same argument about people, many of whom seem intent upon self-destruction as a result of their selfishness in these troubled times.

There are so many examples of selfishness it is hard to know where to begin, but let us confine ourselves to shipping before focusing on tugs in particular.

One particularly egregious example comes from Miami, which owes much of its prosperity to cruise ships. The authorities there were reported to be refusing to allow cruise ships to berth if they had coronavirus cases on board, effectively condemning the victims and potential victims to death, until the cruise operators got together and reminded the authorities that there were other ports which would love to become the cruising capital of the world. Apparently the thought of losing so much business was enough to convince the authorities to show some compassion.

Honourable exceptions

Other ports are not so biddable. I live and work in one of the world’s great ports, but you would hardly know it because sea-blindness here is endemic.

If local residents think about shipping at all, it is probably the vile and base nature of those filthy seafarers who frequent low dives and houses of ill repute. The fact that the houses of ill repute are owned and operated by locals, not seafarers, escapes them.

It drove me mad in the past when I returned from a ship to be granted only a 48-hour visa to ensure I would not pollute these shores any longer than it would take me to get to the airport and out of their fine city. My protests that I lived here were ignored, of course, and I had 48 hours to get to the Immigration Department and appeal for an extension. Try doing that over the weekend!

Things are no better now. I heard of a case where an owner wanted to do a crew change in Hong Kong for his PRC crew. He offered to have coaches waiting at the bottom of the gangway to whisk the crew across the border to China without any interaction with local people. Rejected, of course.

There have been a lot of good articles and papers written about the plight of seafarers, but I suspect they are only ever read by other people in the industry. Libby Purves wrote a heartfelt and accurate piece about it in The Times which was widely circulated in shipping circles but probably had little effect elsewhere, and the problems continue to mount.

Naturally there are honourable exceptions, and Gibraltar seems to deserve our thanks for permitting crew changes and bending over backwards to assist the ships that call there.

The European Union is, somewhat belatedly, trying to organise a network of ports where ships will be able to change crews, but with a vaccine expected within about 18 months, they may not get the initiative running before the coronavirus disappears.

This should not dissuade them from doing it, of course, because there will be other viruses in the future. Interestingly, some experts predict most of these will originate in southern China, because the temperature and humidity in southern China makes it the perfect breeding ground and the population density makes spreading a virus almost inevitable.

Those of us who are accustomed to spending long periods in relative isolation at sea should have no problem adopting the social distancing measures now being implemented around the world, but the selfishness of landlubbers is monumental.

“Not good, in a place which is supposed to be a major shipping hub and ‘Asia’s World City’.”

No sooner had Hong Kong got the situation under control than people ignored government advice, flooded back to the bars and karaoke lounges, and started to spread it again – and the second wave was much worse than the first.

Would it be uncharitable of me to suggest that people who inflict karaoke on the rest of us deserve whatever is coming to them?

The situation was exacerbated by a whole load of students returning from studying overseas. They were an impressive sight as they boarded flights wearing overalls, hoods, facemasks and goggles and refusing to eat or use the lavatories on board for fear of catching the virus.

So pitiful, and such a waste of effort when it turned out that many of them were infected before they got anywhere near the airport. They were soon contributing to the second wave of infections.

But what of the tug companies? I have only been able to talk to my local sources, and they report they are operating smoothly and changing crews at will because public transport is still working efficiently.

I imagine this is the same in most places, especially in countries where crews tend to own cars and drive themselves to work. Companies in Hong Kong are ensuring their crews have PPE and facemasks, checking them whenever they can, and putting people on paid leave if there is an outbreak in the block where they live.

The operations room is still manned around the clock, but as many staff as possible are working from home. They have been asked to help with crew changes from ships in the port, but all crew changes have so far been blocked by the authorities.

Their main problem is in relation to their Filipino employees, some of whom are due to go on leave soon. It is difficult to get them out, and almost impossible to bring their replacements in. Not good, in a place which is supposed to be a major shipping hub and “Asia’s World City”.

“Be careful out there!”

It is hard to know what else can be done, especially with so much misinformation about. I read today that Covid-19 was made in a test tube in China and released so world stock markets would collapse and China could buy foreign companies on the cheap. This is probably not true, but I also note that most countries are still not insisting that people wear face masks, despite the evidence which seems to indicate that places in the Far East that learned from the SARS outbreak and where people started to use masks whenever the had a cold, have been less seriously affected.

Hong Kong, Macau and South Korea, for example, appear to be faring better than almost anywhere else, and the people are almost all wearing facemasks. Even medical experts agree that a mask may not stop you catching the virus, but will help you avoid spreading it if you do catch it.

That seems to be a fairly convincing argument for wearing one, in my opinion. So why are governments not insisting? Could it be that one of the major centres for producing the filter material in facemasks was Wuhan?

If this is true, then there are simply not enough masks to go around, and if ordinary people start wearing them there will not be enough left for front line medical staff. Thus many countries cannot afford to insist upon the use of masks.

Fortunately, Wuhan is coming out of lockdown, so supplies may soon be back to normal and I really believe facemasks, testing and social distancing are the best ways to beat Covid-19. It would not do any harm, and might do some good if all tug companies issued facemasks to all their employees.

Apart from that, tug companies might be able to perform valuable services for their colleagues on the big ships. Many welfare workers from organisations such as the Mission to Seafarers can no longer get aboard to minister to visiting crews, so why not talk to them and ask if there is anything the tugs can do?

It might be as simple as delivering a few telephone cards or videos, or the odd care package. We could do it by passing a heaving line, and it might make a big difference to the men and women trapped on board.

And if there are no welfare organisations in your area, why not start one? Local shipping lines and agents would probably support you, and imagine how happy the average seafarer would be if somebody cared enough to send some bars of chocolate and an inflatable doll.

Be careful out there!

Alan Loynd

Alan Loynd is a master mariner with extensive seagoing and shore experience, especially in the areas of salvage and towage. He is the former General Manager of the renowned Hong Kong Salvage and Towage company. He now runs his own marine consultancy and was chairman of the International Tugmasters Association.