Anti-virus controls strand merchant sailors aboard ships


BEIJING – The crew of the U.S.-owned Horizon Spirit expect to spend Christmas looking after their 800-foot (240-meter) long container ship in a southern Chinese shipyard, barred, like thousands of sailors worldwide, from going ashore due to coronavirus restrictions.

Most of the 22-member crew that left Los Angeles on Oct. 22 have been confined to the ship while it is being overhauled in Nantong in eastern China, said its third mate, Harvey Smith. Normally, they would have moved to a hotel to avoid welding, painting and other work.

“Just now, the paint fumes are so bad that we have to wear a mask to the galley to pick up our food,” said Smith, of Wilmington, California, by phone from Nantong, northwest of Shanghai on the Yangtze River.

Worldwide, nearly 400,000 merchant sailors who transport food, medical supplies and other goods are blocked from going ashore, according to the International Chamber of Shipping, an industry group. Some have been aboard their ships for up to 17 months.

Anti-virus controls and visa restrictions in many countries prevent foreign sailors from flying in to replace ship crews. The secretary-general of the U.N. International Maritime Organization, Kitack Lim, has called it a “crew change crisis.”

Chinese factories and stores have reopened since the ruling Communist Party declared the virus under control in March. That has driven a surge in demand for imported oil, industrial components and consumer goods. But few new visas are being issued, meaning many foreign sailors cannot leave their ships.

China stopped issuing new visas in March. In October, it eased restrictions to let shippers replace crews in Shanghai and nine other ports, but not Nantong.

Aboard the Horizon Spirit, Smith said he spends his days as a fire lookout while dozens of Chinese electricians, welders, painters and other workers overhaul the ship. The crew set up blowers to keep fumes out of living areas.

“There are lots of other ships here. As I do my rounds, I see crew members on other ships,” said Smith. “It looks like they are restricted also.”

Smith said he had visited China earlier but his latest five-year, multiple-entry visa expired in April. The Chinese visa office in Los Angeles was closed, but he and other crew members had expected to still get permission to leave the ship in Nantong. Chinese health officials have tested them six times for the coronavirus and found none infected, he said, but there was no word on whether they might be allowed to apply for visas.

“Normally, when a ship goes into a shipyard, they send the whole crew ashore to stay in a hotel,” said Smith. “We’ve been here over 40 days.”

A few crew members have made makeshift Christmas decorations, but Friday will be a normal work day, Smith said.

“We really don’t have any plans,” he said.

Five sailors were allowed to go to a hotel because their visas still were valid, Smith said. The others are “confined to the vessel, cannot even leave the gangway,” he said. He said the ship is scheduled to return to Los Angeles next month after picking up cargo in Shanghai.

The Nantong port administration and visa bureau didn’t respond to questions about how many sailors might be affected and whether any had been granted visas after arriving.

On Dec. 1, the U.N. General Assembly called on governments in a resolution to designate ship crews as “essential workers” to ease their travel. It said merchant ships moved 11 billion tons of goods last year, which is “essential to the normal functioning of society.”

“Land is right there, and I can’t even go down the gangway,” said Smith. “Too bad.”