COLUMN | Notes from an essential service provider [Tug Times]


I was delighted recently to be informed I was considered an essential service provider as part of Hong Kong’s salvage response team and could get a priority booking for a coronavirus jab. In the same week I also qualified as an elderly person. The only difference was that wrinklies could choose which type of jab they would receive, so I opted to be considered old and received the vaccine of my choice.

Needless to say, despite arbitrary government designations I will continue to think of myself as an essential service provider in his prime.

All governments should consider mariners of every persuasion essential, of course, although at the time of writing, many do not. There are encouraging signs, however, with the United Kingdom recently announcing that all seafarers, of any nationality, are exempted from quarantine measures and will be free to join or leave ships without spending ten days in isolation, and without the need to be tested for Covid-19 after their arrival in the UK.

As a result of similar measures in several countries, the number of seafarers waiting for repatriation has dropped from 400,000 to 200,000 in the past six months. As an industry, it is incumbent upon us to ensure we do not screw it up by sending infected seafarers to join ships, and it is incumbent upon governments to ensure towage and salvage operators are protected in order to continue providing essential services.

But the sad reality is that, so far, only 60 countries have designated seafarers as key workers, and this is simply not good enough.

At the same time, another potential problem threatens the shipping industry – a lack of access to vaccinations in the developing world. There are signs that many countries will insist that all seafarers are vaccinated before ships are permitted to enter their ports, yet more than half of all seafarers come from developing nations where access to vaccines remains a pipe dream, and where it may be years before vaccines are widely available. One solution might be for developed nations to offer vaccines, so crews could get their jabs at different ports of call during a voyage, but this would require more good will than is evident today – witness the unseemly fight between the UK and the European Union over vaccines, which is being widely reported at the moment.

The irony is that by the second half of this year it is estimated that most vaccines will be distributed by sea, so countries that reject ships whose crews have not been vaccinated may be prolonging the pandemic. Meanwhile, most PPEs are already being transported by ships. Unfortunately, sea-blindness may still see ships delayed and ship owners facing legal liabilities if their crews cannot prove they have been vaccinated.

If there is a ray of hope, it may be stuck in the Suez Canal as I write this column.

“It would not cost a great deal to convince the world that shipping is vital and our crews need to be vaccinated quickly.”

Few shipping-related stories in recent years have generated as much interest as the unfortunate grounding of Ever Given, and much of the attention has been on delays to essential supplies. Reporters have highlighted the number of ships affected, and how much longer it will take ships to travel around Africa if they can no longer go through the canal.

This would be the perfect moment for some well-aimed advertising by the International Chamber of Shipping, IMO and other industry bodies to educate the public, whilst their minds are focused on the topic. It would not cost a great deal to convince the world that shipping is vital and our crews need to be vaccinated quickly.

The role of tugs and dredgers in removing Ever Given could also be used to raise awareness of what we do, and it would not be a bad idea if every tug company planted a story with their local news outlets indicating the vital role tugs play both locally and internationally. Now is the perfect time, and if we miss this opportunity we may not get another one even half as good.

“Perhaps we need to revise STCW to ensure that every seafarer must, at the very least, have the IQ of a cabbage.”

The International Salvage Union could assist greatly by trumpeting their members’ rapid response to the Suez case and their 2020 statistics that show that, despite the pandemic, salvors were still on hand to prevent 2.5 million tonnes of pollutants entering the world’s oceans and to save almost 200 ships. I could write the advertising copy myself – “last year, we prevented 200 potential Ever Given disasters while the rest of you were in lockdown.” This winning line is offered free of charge, although I hope you will all start to think of me as the Murray Walker of tug columnists, and remember that, “a tug a day helps you work, rest and play.”

Before I succumb to an overdose of misplaced vanity I must finish with a warning, not for the first time, about attempts to kill tugpersons by using deadly missiles.

A group of industry bodies including the British Tugowners Association have recently issued a joint notice against the continued use of dangerously weighted heaving lines (DWHL) by ships visiting ports and harbours throughout the UK. Among other things, they remind offenders that DWHL can kill or maim tug crews and mooring gangs, and their use could result in fines or criminal prosecution.

Most frightening to me was the extract from The Code of Safe Working Practice cautioning that “under no circumstances is a line to be weighted by items such as shackles….or twistlocks.” Twistlocks, for goodness sake! Somebody has actually thrown a twistlock from a great height without realising it might not be a good idea.

Perhaps we need to revise STCW to ensure that every seafarer must, at the very least, have the IQ of a cabbage.

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.