Solving the crew change challenge

Seafarers are invisible victims of COVID-19. Thanks to local restrictions and logistical challenges, hundreds of thousands have been stranded at sea – marooned on vessels for, in some cases, months beyond agreed contracts. Here Inchcape Shipping Services explains how it combines a physical network with virtual transparency to solve problems, unite families and safely switch seafarers worldwide.

Complexity and cost.

Feizel Mohammed doesn’t waste words.

Speaking over a Teams link from his base in Singapore he doesn’t have the time to. Inchcape’s Global Sector Head, Ship & Crew Managers, has a busy evening at the office ahead and, by his reckoning, won’t be home with his (slumbering) family until 1am.

So, when asked about the major challenges of facilitating crew changes this year compared to last, he gets straight to the point.

“Everything’s changed,” he says. “In this global industry there’s suddenly an explosion of local restrictions, complicating once relatively straightforward logistical operations or, in some cases, making them impossible. You need the local knowledge to understand what you can and can’t do, the global perspective to find alternative solutions, and the flexibility to adapt.

It is very, very challenging.

That seems, on the face of it, somewhat of an understatement.

Radical change

If it was easy to change crews during the coronavirus pandemic we wouldn’t have had the humanitarian crisis of (at one point up to) 400,000 seafarers stranded on vessels beyond contracted agreements.

It’s anything but easy.

Ports open and close for crew changes without warning. Those that are open have their own quarantine rules and durations, with a variety of routines for transit to and from vessels, and varying demands for PCR testing, hotel stays, and different crew nationalities. Flight availability to and from hubs is, for the most part, radically different from pre-COVID times, making previously exceptional private charters a common, and expensive, solution. And, of course, a new breed of regulations has spawned an avalanche of paperwork.

But sometimes it’s the little things that hit home.

“Minivans,” smiles Mohammed. “If we were facilitating a crew change of 10 people at the start of the year we’d use one minivan. Now, due to safe social distancing and hygiene protocols, we’d have three, with a maximum occupancy of four per vehicle. It goes without saying how much more expensive that is.”

As he made clear before – complexity and cost; the new crew change reality.

It’s Inchcape’s job to tackle it.

Safe hands

Inchcape Shipping Services is a global ships agency giant. With a history stretching back over 170 years, it’s a firm that has lived through its fair share of global crises, none of which appear to have stymied growth. Today it boasts over 240 offices, in 68 countries, covering around 2,500 ports, with approximately 3,000 staff scattered across key locations, supported by an army of carefully vetted suppliers. The services it provides encompass full cargo agency, to dry-docking, survey and inspection, financial management, bunker calls, and more – all with the promise of standardised levels of service, transparency, value and compliance.

In difficult times, Mohammed notes, it offers a safe pair of hands.

And, of course, times don’t get much more difficult for crew change – a key focus for the Singapore-based executive, who looks after the needs of some of the world’s leading ship management companies, and their extensive fleets.

Luckily, he doesn’t do it alone.

Big picture benefits

Manish Ranjan, Inchcape’s Head of Vessel Supply Chain Hub, is also on the call from Mumbai. Mohammed’s role is commercial – setting contracts, managing accounts and building business – while Ranjan’s is operational, fulfilling Inchcape’s promises.

And facilitating global crew logistics services (CLS) is, he explains, a key service and revenue generator. Even, it appears, this year.

“Given the various stages of lockdown around the world we’ve maintained a strong level of activity in key hubs such as Fujairah, Singapore, Houston, Hong Kong, Rotterdam (where we worked across the industry to establish a ‘safe corridor’), Gibraltar, Panama, Egypt… basically most places where we have a strong office network,” he explains.

Although reticent to give exact figures, he imparts that annual crew change numbers were approaching six-figures last year. 2020, obviously, will be different, but he sees a fall of only around 20% – a quite staggering achievement under the circumstances.

That “strong office network” he just referenced has been key.

“We can see the big picture,” Ranjan imparts. “If a crew change is impossible in one port we can advise and facilitate it in another that complements vessel schedules and operations. If there is a 14 day quarantine requirement in one location, incurring significant hotel costs and inconvenience, we can plan to deviate to another where, for example, there might only be a five or seven day isolation, or none. And because we have people on the ground worldwide we have relationships with port authorities to understand their individual needs, know exact documentation requirements and, where necessary, lobby for special considerations in extreme circumstances.”

Here he mentions two cases where Inchcape successfully repatriated individuals in locations where changes were temporarily suspended – the five months pregnant wife of a Chief Officer in Nigeria and a crewman with a serious facial injury, he unfortunately lost an eye, at Ras Laffan in Qatar.

“We always work to find a solution. We believe there’s no one better placed to do so.”

Feizel Mohammed – Sector Head, Ship Managers

Moving mountains

But of course, usually it’s not individuals that need to be signed on and off vessels, but entire crews… and sometimes for multiple vessels at the same time.

It’s here where a global network can really pay dividends.

Ranjan uses the example of one case in July where several ship management customers joined forces in a bid to charter flights for 100 seafarers – from India and Sri Lanka – to fly into Gibraltar and relieve existing crews on numerous ships. With only 48 hours notice Inchcape conducted an operation that saw teams across continents facilitating a crew consolidation in Doha, an overnight stay in London (where a hotel was persuaded to open especially), multiple transfers, hours of immigration negotiations at several airports, and the eventual arrival in Gibraltar, from where the process started again in reverse with a number of off-signing crew travelling back to India.

“I’m not sure if it was fun,” laughs Ranjan, “but it was certainly a fulfilling challenge. It simply wouldn’t have been possible without the close internal collaboration of our international offices, using their physical presence and contacts on the ground to get things done.

“That kind of exercise build bonds. Not just between us as a company, but also between us and the customers, as partners. It creates a deeper sense of trust. I think that’s something we’ve really benefitted from during these trying times.”

Virtual support

Trust in Inchcape’s people and network has also helped the entire industry – whether customers or not – navigate the ever-changing landscape of local restrictions associated with COVID-19.

In March, Inchcape launched a ‘COVID-tracker’ on its website, delivering a uniquely in-depth overview of evolving restrictions at major ports around the world. Combining official notifications of regulations with insights from local Inchcape people on the ground, alongside proprietary data, the tracker gives users a constantly updated picture of exactly what rules, restrictions and paperwork are relevant in any given location.

It is, Ranjan states, a way of regaining a sense of agency in an otherwise chaotic situation:

“The real-time nature of the tracker gives key decision makers, both on the bridge and on shore, the ability to understand detailed requirements and, if necessary, alter operations to best meet objectives. It is, in short, a very powerful planning tool.”

He reveals that, since launch, the online tool has been driving unprecedented traffic to Inchcape’s website, with a threefold growth in visitors from pre-COVID to the peak of the pandemic.

“It demonstrates the value of the services we can provide,” he adds, noting, “and it would not be possible to do so if it wasn’t for our physical network of expert employees in each of these key locations. They’re real key workers.”

As, of course, are the vessel crews themselves.

Dual duty

Mohammed rounds off the call by underlining his team’s commitment to them, but also to society.

“I believe, very strongly, that we have a dual purpose,” he stresses. “Crews are under extraordinary pressure at present, and that impacts upon them and their families, but also on our customer’s shore-based staff that have to try and support them under exceptional circumstances. So, we have a duty to them, all of them, to help.

“But we also have a duty to society. This pandemic has impacted upon everyone and the more we can control it, mitigating risk and limiting infection, the less damage, hardship and pain it will cause. We are doing everything in our power to stop any potential spread through crew changes – finding innovative solutions, yes, but also going the extra mile to ensure they are safe.”

If that sounds like hard work, it is – as evidenced by the late night lying ahead for the Inchcape executive – but he’s not complaining.

“I may be going home late,” he shrugs, “but I am going home. I want to make sure as many crews as possible round the world can do the same.

“There’s still work to be done.”