How is the coronavirus affecting mariners’ lives?

Social distancing is not something that comes easy on a towboat or barge, or any kind of workboat.

Mariners must work and live in close quarters. The nature of the work requires close collaboration of a team that has specific roles that keep the vessel moving, safe and well-maintained.

Keeping the waterways open and commerce moving is especially important at a time when the world has been thrown into an uncertain pattern and scary future by the spread of the novel coronavirus.

We need the energy moved by barges to fuel our homes. We need the grains moved by barges to feed the animals that provide us food. And the rest of the world depends on the farm, energy and steel products moved by the U.S. tug and barge industry.

We’ve heard about how the barge industry is dealing with the situation, imposing sanitation procedures onshore and on vessels, performing health checks of employees, initiating emergency plans, limiting or prohibiting visitors to their facilities, and mandating that shoreside personnel work from home.

But working from home when your job is on a vessel isn’t possible. And the Department of Homeland Security has just published guidelines that list mariners in various sectors of the industry as “essential transportation workers” that should continue to work.

So, we were wondering what it’s like working on a vessel while most of the rest of the world is social distancing, hunkering down at home, stocking up on food and fretting about the future.

Tell us what it’s like being in such close quarters with fellow crewmembers and in small spaces when the rest of us have been told to keep a distance of six feet from each other?

How has the routine and life onboard changed? Is it hard to keep up with the new demands for personal and vessel hygiene and sanitation? Are you worried about loved ones sheltering in place at home? Are you concerned about being vulnerable to infection as you work so close to others? Do you wonder if you should be working at all? How are you getting your news and information?

Drop us a line and share your thoughts and experiences in the space below. Perhaps opening a dialogue will help others better handle their concerns during these anxious times.

About the author

Pamela Glass

Pamela Glass is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for WorkBoat. She reports on the decisions and deliberations of congressional committees and federal agencies that affect the maritime industry, including the Coast Guard, U.S. Maritime Administration and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Prior to coming to WorkBoat, she covered coastal, oceans and maritime industry news for 15 years for newspapers in coastal areas of Massachusetts and Michigan for Ottaway News Service, a division of the Dow Jones Company. She began her newspaper career at the New Bedford (Mass.) Standard-Times. A native of Massachusetts, she is a 1978 graduate of Wesleyan University (Conn.). She currently resides in Potomac, Md.


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    I have just been allowed off today, after the vessel was tied up at her normal base. We’ve been working offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. We were supposed to get off a week ago, but our reliefs were turned away and sent home at the heliport. They were allowed to leave their home countries and enter the US with no problems. They were not from anywhere with virus issues. The heliport had the manifest a few days beforehand, which lists their countries of origin. They could have (and should have) told us they wouldn’t let foreigners on their helicopters before the company spent who knows how much money to get them to work and then had to fly them all back home the next day, where some of them had to then go into quarantine since they’d been flying! What a fiasco!

    The company has cancelled ALL crew changes worldwide until mid-April (they can extend it). The normal hitch on their vessels is 5 weeks. So, people are stuck onboard anywhere from 5 weeks to 5 months. Now, they will have to stay longer. Most people are very concerned about their friends and families at home. I am. lucky not to be in the same circumstances as most of the crew, since I am American and almost all of them are foreigners.
    Many of them can not go home since their countries have closed their borders and locked down their countries.

    Their ships are tied up due to not being able to get enough crew. I was told by others in the crew who are from Great Britain that their country is seriously in need of seafarers, but due to lockdowns and travel restrictions they can not get them. Hopefully, that will not happen here, although I was hopeful to get two jobs on Tuesday and by Wednesday morning both had already been cancelled due to the coronavirus and related plunge in the price of oil.

    I’ve already been basically unemployed for 5 years since the last price plunge, along with many of my friends (all with high level licenses and DP tickets- there has been close to zero work since 2015). Now, with the price of oil back under $25 again, it looks like it might be another 5 years with no hope of a decent job. We’re all extremely worried about our financial situation, as well as our ability to keep our documents up to date so that we could go back to work IF/WHEN there is any work available.

    Onboard, we have been using hand sanitizer (but ran out a week ago and told the earliest we can get more is mid-May). We have been washing hands a lot more than usual. We have been cleaning a lot more than normal. We have restricted ALL access to the ship.

    The pilots insist that no one but the captain, mate and helmsman be allowed on the bridge while they were onboard. That they only enter/leave the bridge from outside stairs (no elevator or inside stairwells). That everything on the bridge be sanitized (chart table, surfaces where they might put their pilot computer, etc) and no one come closer than necessary.

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      Steve manich on

      I work on a fleet boat around New Orleans ,12 hrs on 12 off on a 14&7 schedule. Since the crews go home everyday it makes you wonder more about the element of contact of your crew . We sanitize the vessel every shift coming on & getting off. Supplies have been hard to get keeping this routine since everyone is more aware . We have been trying to distance ourselves but being in the fleet working close to other vessels is hard to do. Spreading men out on tows to separate them somewhat.

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    I work on a tugboat towing a petroleum barge in the Pacific Northwest and things have slowed down for us due to fewer ships coming into port for us to bunker. My company has sent out dozens of Fleet Alerts with new rules on sanitization and interacting with crew mates and the crew on ships that we bunker. It’s been a little harder to get supplies, but not too bad.

    I am mostly unaffected by what’s been going on in the world as I haven’t left the boat in almost three weeks, but I’m sure it’ll be a shock when I go home in about two weeks.

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    It’s not as easy as some would think. The constant worry of family at home is the biggest. I don’t think any men working aboard vessels are really too worried or scared of the virus. We have been working on boats most of us since we were able to work, so the fear of anything other than drowning or catching fire out at sea is pretty much the only fear other than the safety of loved ones at home. There is talk of some vessels having the virus outbreak aboard the vessel and no matter how safe we are if the virus is around us prayer is the only safe solution. These vessels aren’t in the middle of the river away from everything we need to stop for fuel, groceries and supplies. Pretty much all of it comes from the New Orleans area and is usually delivered by someone from the area as well. So while this friendly kid delivering our essentials shows up dropping off supplies or the fuel man shaking our hand wishing us well we have no idea what they were in contact with or not. If the virus is around us we stand just as good a chance as the public to catch it, so prayer is our only promise of health and safety!

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    H. Phillip Moore on

    I can’t tell you because I haven’t been there yet. I can tell you this though — we are empty nesters and when I go to work next Wednesday I’ll be leaving my wife at home alone for 28 days. It terrifies me to think she could get sick and not have anyone to call on. She is my world and I would give anything to be able to stay with her until this is over. But the bills keep coming.

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    Things have been business as usual really. The crew changed a week and a half ago, the guys coming in had to record their temp with a witness on hand. Groceries have been affected to a degree. You cannot help but worry about family at home, but you’ve also got to keep your head in the game on the water…

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    I’d be glad to comment. Thanks! Since the pandemic started I decided to quarantine by riding over. I’ve been on the boat since February 25. I live near Charlotte, NC so flying is the best option compared to driving which is 16 hour trip from Houston. I’m also getting paid to quarantine, which is a huge plus! I also didn’t want to come home and possibly infect my wife and daughter. It got kinda stressful at one point because we had a big move coming up and I wouldn’t be home to help. My wife was getting overwhelmed with packing and I have to say I was afraid she wasn’t gonna make it but we decided to hire local movers beforehand from a reputable company. Everything got moved without any problem. I always say we’re only as good as the people we have at home. I have to say I have a great wife. So anyway, I’m due off April 28 but we’ll see. But no matter what my wife said, I’m coming home.

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    I was on the boat 28 days been home 7 and going back for 35 days or longer due to the coronavirus. We try the social distancing of 6 feet, but in our work it’s sometimes impossible. Unless you wanna put most of the tow work on one person. But we bare with it and get the job done. When your stuck together for 28 days or longer you know who’s sick and who isn’t and to be honest if one gets sick usually we all do. Because a towboat’s only so big.

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    Thanks, everyone for taking the time to share your experiences. Has anyone noticed a slowdown of traffic on the waterways? Are less commodities moving? Or maybe you’ve seen an uptick in certain things? We’re thinking of you all out there on the waterways, and know you are worrying about your families, and thank you for what you do.

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    Capt. Wilson T-son Naquin on

    Thank you for your concerns and I pray every night for this pandemic to end quickly. We push petroleum barges from Baton Rouge to Houston and it hasn’t slowed down as of yet but there is talk of it. As mention in previous comments we are taking the necessary precautions to stay healthy and safe out here by keeping everything clean and sanitized. Yes it tough being out here watching the world go round and worrying about our loved ones but we do what we do to ensure our industry keeps going and the bills get paid. So everyone please keep us in your prayers as we are limited to what we can and can not do for our own safety and well being.

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