New year in a new world: Navigating COVID’s maritime realities

In a matter of days, the decorative time balls will drop, “Auld Lang Syne” will fill the air, and ships at anchor will sound their horns as the world welcomes in the new year. 2021 hasn’t even started, but it already has made the history books. It will be the first time since humans walked the earth that a year begins amid a pandemic caused by the coronavirus, an infectious killer that has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens and well over 1 million people globally in less than 10 months. Without a doubt, the biggest story circulating around the world right now is COVID-19, and there is not a soul alive today who hasn’t been impacted in some way by it.

Like everyone else, the maritime industry has been hit hard by COVID-19. Here in the United States, there have been outbreaks on many commercial vessels, and tragically, some of our fellow mariners have died after contracting it. In response to the virus, U.S. Coast Guard officials have made wholesale changes to credentialing procedures. With the new year nearly upon us, those obtaining or maintaining a merchant mariner credential (MMC) will find that things are much different than they were only a few short months ago.

Mariners, ranging from newcomers getting their first document to experienced professionals renewing or upgrading their license, are no longer able to submit their paperwork in person at their local Regional Exam Center (REC). The RECs are only accepting applications for upgrades and renewals by email, fax or postal mail. In addition, mariners cannot pay the fees for the evaluation or issuance of their MMC in person anymore — all payments must be made online. Even though no walk-up services are available at the RECs, in-person testing is still offered, but mariners can only make appointments by email. Plan ahead when scheduling your tests because due to social distancing requirements in the exam rooms, the number of available appointments has been reduced by about 50 percent. With the RECs closed to everything but exams, all general phone and email questions from merchant mariners are directed to the National Maritime Center in West Virginia — so be prepared for a long wait on hold when you make the call. 

How we get our jobs has also changed. My first gig as a professional was a pier head jump, a last-minute opening that came up unexpectedly mere hours before the tug was set to sail. During the pandemic, quick job turnarounds like this are not going to happen. U.S.-flag maritime companies have established COVID-19 protocols for all crewmembers prior to joining a vessel, a process that takes 14 to 21 days and includes both testing and pre-employment quarantining.

Adding 14 to 21 days of pre-employment procedures essentially turns a typical 75-day deep-sea work tour into one that is 90 to 100 days long. Getting off the ship for any reason, including vacation, classwork or training, will “reset” the clock, requiring another 14 to 21 days of screening and quarantining before the mariner can join the vessel again. Augie, a chief steward friend of mine, recently had to work an extra 50 days beyond his normal 75-day scheduled tour due to testing and quarantining, as well as the delays caused by his relief’s pre-employment protocols.

For me, one of the attractions of going to sea has always been being able to get off the ship in port and enjoy some personal time. Not so in 2021. Once it has been determined that mariners are COVID-free prior to joining the vessel, they are not allowed to leave the ship the entire time they are working on board. With this new policy, enjoying some sightseeing, gift shopping or a nice meal ashore is no longer permitted, prompting many old-timers to complain that the virus has taken the fun out of working on the water.

2021 will also find the maritime job market worse than it has been in years as the deadly contagion continues to take its toll on all sectors of the industry, albeit some more than others. Domestic U.S.-flag passenger vessels, once a plentiful source of jobs for both licensed and unlicensed mariners, have dramatically reduced operations — leaving hundreds if not thousands unemployed. J.S., a longtime colleague of mine, holds a chief’s license and worked for several years for a passenger vessel operator here on the West Coast. Since the company suspended operations because of the pandemic, he has been furloughed and is now looking for work anywhere he can find it — with no luck so far.

In addition to excursion vessels, jobs aboard ferries and research ships will continue to be way down in the new year. The Alaska Marine Highway ferry schedule for the winter of 2021, for example, has far fewer sailings than in years past, putting many mariners out of work. One ship operator I know is very concerned that, for the second year in a row, the entire government contract for his research support vessel will be canceled, leaving the crew unemployed and dealing a potentially devastating financial blow to the company.

As we enter the new year, there is no way to know just how long COVID-19 will affect the maritime industry, or how serious the consequences will be. Change will be the “new normal” for everyone in 2021. To successfully navigate what this year brings, you will need to be flexible and keep abreast of new regulations and protocols. Above all, my friends, stay safe.

Till next time, I wish you all the best in the new year, and 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