September 2020


by Christiaan De Beukelaer

From locked out to locked in

When international ports close, what happens to those at sea?

According to the International Maritime Organization, more than 200,000 seafarers are currently stranded at sea. They cannot return home at the end of their contracts on commercial vessels – including container ships, tankers, bulk carriers and cruise ships – which often have them at sea for months. Since countries around the world started closing their borders to contain the spread of COVID-19, crew change has been prohibited. As a result, the “Seafarers Happiness Index”, a quarterly survey published by the London-based Mission to Seafarers, indicates an unsurprising recent drop in “general happiness” levels.

Some countries have started easing border restrictions, including for seafarers, but shipping companies haven’t always been able to organise international flights to make crew changes happen. If new crew members cannot join a ship for whatever reason, current crew members can’t leave. 

Until we arrived in Hamburg, Germany’s largest port, on July 23, I had been stuck at sea for five months. Now I find myself in hotel quarantine in Sydney.

I signed on, at the end of February, to sail a 100-year-old schooner across the Atlantic from Santa Cruz de Tenerife in the Canary Islands to Marie-Galante in the French Antilles. I joined the Avontuur, which operates as a commercial cargo vessel, as part of my research: exploring the revival of traditional sailing ships that move cargo across seas and oceans in a bid to decarbonise maritime transport.

Halfway into this ocean crossing, which lasted about three weeks, we heard from the ship’s owner through satellite connection. A pandemic was sweeping the globe. Countries had gone into lockdown. Including the places we were sailing to in order to load cargoes of rum, coffee and cacao. It was not clear when and where we would be able to go ashore again.

“No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail,” said the 18th-century English author Samuel Johnson, “for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned.”

There is a difference between being locked down on land and being locked out at sea. On the water, we felt safe in our community of 15. We lived in a perfectly closed “contact bubble” (I had not heard such COVID newspeak until the end of July). Ships, moreover, are benevolent dictatorships. The captain calls the shots, much like Premier Daniel Andrews does during Victoria’s “state of disaster”. 

Leaving one’s house comes with the risk of contracting the virus; leaving a ship at sea comes with the certainty of drowning. So why am I not overjoyed to be back on dry land?

The contrast between being confined to a ship and being confined in the Sydney Harbour Marriott Hotel at Circular Quay for 14 days of quarantine could hardly be bigger.

At sea, we were always surrounded by fresh ocean air. Now I can’t even open my window.

At sea, we were constantly on the move. Our ship was limited in space, but I travelled nearly 14,000 nautical miles. In quarantine, my movement is limited to stationary running, as I am not allowed to leave my room, not even for exercise.

At sea, I was part of a small but vibrant social environment. During the past 14 days, my only in-person social contact has been with the nurse who gave me the swab test.

At sea, there was no internet: no email, no news, no social media, no Zoom, no distraction. My life has now become a rapid succession of online meetings.

At sea, we were surrounded by a seemingly endless expanse of water, but fresh water was scarce. Now I’m hemmed in by concrete, but I have hot running water again. It is perhaps the only real pleasure I can find here. 

At sea, our time was strictly organised in watches. Four hours on, eight hours off. Every day, without a break. Now, discreet knocks on my door, which announce the arrival of my three daily meals, are the only active reminders of the passing of time.

At sea, we were surrounded by signs of wildlife. From the blows of gigantic blue whales to bioluminescent signs of microscopic life, and everything in between. From my hotel room window, the most exciting life I’ve spotted was a couple dancing in their living room across Macquarie Place Park.

At sea, I heard the constant sounds of wind, waves and wake. These sounds would tell me everything I needed to know about the weather and the speed we were travelling at. Now the monotonous humming of the hotel air-conditioning is crushing.

I don’t have a clue what’s waiting for me once I leave hotel quarantine. I haven’t been in Australia since January. I haven’t lived through the first wave, nor the first lockdown. And I can’t quite fathom what it will be like at home in Melbourne under stage-four restrictions.

New ways of living seem to have emerged. I’ll have to get used to that and empathise with an entire population that has lived through a tremendously difficult year. But my year has had its own, wholly different difficulties.

I’m on my way home. And no matter how difficult it may be to get used to the “new normal”, at least I know I can go home. For more than 200,000 seafarers, such certainty is beyond the horizon. They simply don’t know when they’ll be able to leave their ships. Their contracts may be extended, planned crew change may be cancelled at the last moment, and they may be stuck at sea for much longer.

Once they can leave their ships and go home, that home will not exist anymore. Like me, they will return to a world that has changed beyond recognition while they were locked out.

Christiaan De Beukelaer

Christiaan De Beukelaer is a senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne.

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