Mariners, Coast Guard adapting to coronavirus risks and realities

On my birthday in early February, my wife and I celebrated the day with a fish-and-chips lunch at a favorite local restaurant, followed by a pleasant hike along a waterfront preserve on the south end of the island we live on. Halfway through the walk, we sat down on a log to enjoy a cup of coffee out of our thermos. Looking across Saratoga Passage, the mainland city of Everett came into view, where just two weeks earlier the first confirmed case of novel coronavirus in the United States was reported. The Puget Sound region soon became “ground zero” of the pandemic, and within a few short months over 100,000 Americans had died of COVID-19. We got the sad news that Charlie, a fellow rockhound and longtime island neighbor of ours, died after contracting the virus — which is considered by medical experts to be many times more deadly than the standard flu. Charlie’s death was a sobering reminder of just how dangerous this virus is, and that none of us is immune to the risk.
 
The maritime industry also has been impacted by the pandemic. Mariners who have been infected include cadets at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, crewmembers on the U.S.-flag cruise ship Pride of America in Hawaii, crews on foreign-flag cargo vessels and cruise ships, and civilian mariners working for the Military Sealift Command (MSC) — and no one knows just how far it will ultimately spread. One thing is certain, however: COVID-19 is dangerous and deadly. After nearly 50 percent of the civilian merchant mariners on his ship tested positive for the coronavirus, a qualified member of the engine department (QMED) on the MSC tanker USNS Leroy Grumman died of COVID-19 in May, leaving behind his wife and three school-aged children.

In response to the crisis, the U.S. Coast Guard in March began making extensive changes to the rules regarding the issuance of merchant mariner endorsements and credentials, announcing these changes in a series of marine safety information bulletins. First, all 17 Regional Exam Centers were closed until further notice. Then the Coast Guard publicized its new policy allowing anyone whose merchant mariner credential (MMC) and/or medical card expired between March 1, 2020, and Sept. 30, 2020, to automatically receive an extension until Dec. 31, 2020. Mariners who hold a valid MMC but whose Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) card has expired are permitted to continue sailing. Finally, licensed officers taking a renewal exam can now receive and send back the test module electronically.

To its credit, the changes the Coast Guard made to the regulations have for the most part benefited us, and a number of my friends and colleagues have taken advantage of them. M.D., a QMED who lives a few miles from our house, is working on board a ship right now even though his MMC expired in May. G.W., a licensed engineer who lives back east, is in the running for a 90-day job on a deep-sea ship even though his MMC will expire in a matter of days. In my opinion, the only downside to the changes was the elimination of the provision that permitted mariners to pay for any credential fees by personal check or money order. As it stands now, if you don’t have a credit card you cannot make a payment at Pay.gov, and so you can forget about getting/renewing your MMC.

As for the maritime industry itself, most vessel operators are being proactive in protecting the mariners working for them. That is good, considering how fast the virus has been shown to spread between crewmembers on ships at sea, coupled with the fact that merchant vessels have no trained medical professionals on board to deal with an outbreak. Unfortunately, with little government guidance in developing the best pre- and post-employment COVID-19 protocols to keep crews safe, there is no industrywide standardization of procedures.
 
Mac, a chief steward I know, took a position recently on a ship. He flew to Anchorage, Alaska, where the company quarantined him for 14 days prior to his joining the vessel. He was put up in a hotel and provided all his meals, had his temperature taken by a medical professional several times a day, and was paid his daily wage for the duration. After 14 days of exhibiting no symptoms, he was allowed to join the ship. Another colleague, Gerald, just joined an oceanographic vessel after having to self-quarantine for 14 days at home for no extra pay. He also had to pass a company-arranged coronavirus antibody test before he was allowed to join the ship. Both of these mariners will have to stay on their respective vessels for their entire 90-day work tour, as no one is allowed shore leave.

The question on the minds of many mariners revolves around whether the changes in credentialing and employment caused by the coronavirus are temporary or permanent. Regarding credentials, I personally would like to see the 90-day grace period during which mariners can sail on expired documents made permanent, along with the electronic transfer of license renewal tests, and I also would like to see the acceptance once again of personal checks and money orders for payment of credential fees. From an employment standpoint, I believe that pre-employment quarantining and testing will continue to be required by companies for the foreseeable future, at least until a vaccine is readily available — which may be years away, according to medical experts.

As if hurricanes and pirates weren’t menace enough, now mariners have to face an invisible and deadly foe every time they go to work. To continue prospering professionally in these uncertain times, staying informed, being proactive, and keeping flexible will be essential. So take care of yourself, stay abreast of changes in rules and regulations, and be ready to do what you need to do to keep your credential, your job, your shipmates, your family and, most importantly, yourself safe.

Till next time, I wish you all smooth sailin.’

Kelly Sweeney holds a license of master (oceans, any gross tons), and has held a master of towing vessels license (oceans) as well. He sails on a variety of commercial vessels and lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at captsweeney@professionalmariner.com.

Categories: Mariner’s Notebook, Publication > Professional Mariner