Pandemic as viewed from the water: mariners speak out

Less navigation traffic. Worrying about loved ones at home. Temperature checks. Praying to stay healthy. Impossible to social distance. Lots of hand washing. Access to vessels restricted.

These are some of the concerns and observations posted by mariners on WorkBoat.com and Facebook over the past few days after we asked what life was like for mariners since the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic started to spread across the U.S.

Many said that their work continues as usual, although they are following new sanitation and hygiene protocols imposed by their companies to keep them safe and their vessels clean. Shore stops are prohibited or limited, and supplies are being delivered. Some are reporting longer than usual periods at work.

“My company has sent out dozens of fleet alerts with new rules on sanitation 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,” wrote Kelly who works on a tugboat that is towing a petroleum barge in the Pacific Northwest. “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.” Work has slowed due to fewer ships coming into port, she said.

“Honestly nothing has really changed, crew change takes 30 seconds longer because the captain is asking us questions about where we went since we were last on the boat, and we have a few extra minutes on the top of our normal daily cleaning routine to keep the boat as clean as possible for us to live and work safely,” wrote Mike Isgren of Thicket, Texas.

Mariners have also expressed resignation that they could get sick, given their working environment.

“On a towboat, if one man gets sick, generally we all get sick unless you got a good immune system,” wrote Cory Franklin on Facebook.

Keeping safe distances is not an option, he said, “unless you wanna put most of the tow work on one person. But we bear with it and get the job done. When you’re stuck together for 28 days  or longer you know who’s sick and who isn’t and to be honest, if one get sick, usually we all do.”

“We are a family out there, and teamwork and safety are the main things we abide by. That 6-foot distancing, you can take and shove it,” added Chris Stewart from Tennessee. “I will never leave my brother by himself to do a job. Because we all know how hard some jobs out there may be.”

A constant worry is for the health and safety of loved ones back home.

“Yep, I worry about my whole family as they are all in careers that they cannot keep a safe distance,” said Doris Dillman-Connolly of Eastport, N.Y.

Added Lucas Hutchinson, “Nothing’s really changed out here. I just constantly worry about my loved ones back home, but I fight it because I am their financial stability.”

In a March 27 posting on WorkBoat.com, Dean wrote that “you cannot help but worry about family at home, but you’ve also got to keep your head in the game on the water.”

Another mariner, David, wrote on WorkBoat that while he is worried about his family, he doesn’t think mariners are much concerned about 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 seas is pretty much the only fear other than the safety of loved ones at home,” he wrote.

“There is talk of some vessels having the virus outbreak aboard and no matter how safe we are if the virus is around us, prayer is the only safe solution,” he continued, adding that stops must be made for fuel while deliveries are made by people they don’t know. “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!”

In the offshore sector, Capt. Jill, writing after finishing her shift on a vessel in the Gulf of Mexico, said her work has been hit by a double whammy — the plunge in oil prices and the coronavirus — a combination that has caused crew scheduling fiascoes and canceled job assignments.

She wrote on March 26 that she was supposed to be off work a week earlier but the relief mariners, all foreign nationals arriving from their home countries, were sent home. She said they were allowed to leave their countries and enter the United States with no issues, but the helicopters taking them to the work site refused to transport them.

“They could 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 had to then go into quarantine. What a fiasco,” she wrote, adding that her company has canceled all crew changes worldwide until at least mid-April.

“The normal hitch on their vessels is five weeks, so people are stuck onboard anywhere from five weeks to five months. Now they will have to stay longer. Most people are very concerned about their friends and families at home.”

With the price of oil plunging to under $25 a barrel, Capt. Jill said the work situation offshore is uncertain. “I’ve already been basically unemployed for five 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),” she wrote. “Now with the price of oil back under $25 again, it looks like it might be another five 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.

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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