Desperate Times for Sailors Stranded by Pandemic
Jens Boysen disembarked one of the world’s largest container ships on Thursday after 167 days at sea when he has acted not only as captain but also as doctor, dentist, mental coach and entertainment director for his stressed-out crew.
Almost 200,000 seafarers like Boysen are stuck onboard merchant ships, some for more than a year, because coronavirus travel restrictions make it almost impossible to rotate crews, according to the U.N.’s International Maritime Organization (IMO).
The crews, who come from all over the world to meet their ships, suffer the mental stress of not knowing when they can return home, their plight worsened by a lack of access to medical treatment.
Boysen, captain of the Emma Maersk, said two crew members developed toothache but were not allowed to leave the ship.
“I got medical advice, and then I pulled the teeth out,” Boysen said, standing on the dock in Hamburg after bidding his crew farewell. “It felt almost like a war situation,” he added.
The IMO has called the situation a “humanitarian crisis” and maritime welfare charities have warned of an increase in suicides by seafarers. Last month, Pope Francis paid tribute to the stranded seafarers in a special video message, saying they were “not forgotten”.
So close yet so far
Boysen, a German national, finally left the ship in Hamburg on Thursday along with two other crew members, after passing up an opportunity to leave the ship in April when it last docked in the same city.
“I felt it was my duty as captain not to leave the ship first, even though I really wanted to see my family,” said Boysen, who lives with his wife and three children near Flensburg in northern Germany.
“That was my low point in April, being in Hamburg and staying on the ship although I could see the city through the port fence,” he added.
To keep up the crews’ spirits, he organised karaoke tournaments, bingo and piggy-back races.
About 90% of world trade is transported by sea, and Boysen said immigration and shipping authorities should agree exemptions from lockdown measures for seafarers to ensure crews can be changed and supply chains protected.
“The public does not really understand what we do in container shipping. We are part of a logistics chain that is not visible to most people but supplies them with most of the things they need.”
Now though the captain, who has accrued a vast amount of holiday along with some paternity leave, has no intention of taking a brief vacation - he’s taking the rest of the year off.
“I really need a break with my family.”
(Reporting by Michael Hogan and Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen; Editing by Pravin Char)