Addressing the shore leave lottery

Shore leave for Seafarers is not easy to come by, as they have to overcome a myriad of hurdles in order to take advantage of it…

By Felicity Landon

Early in February came the news the Singapore authorities would no longer allow seafarers arriving from China to come ashore. Others quickly followed suit. While that measure had logic in the light of the Covid-19/Coronavirus crisis, not being able to disembark and join the ‘real world’ for a few hours is increasingly the norm for seafarers arriving in port.

Different countries have different rules – visa requirements, restrictions on nationalities, geographical limits, night-time curfews, and/or banning minibuses from driving on the terminal. According to senior chaplain Stephen Miller, the Mission to Seafarers’ regional director of East Asia, these are not the biggest issues that prevent seafarers from taking shore leave:

“The biggest issue about shore leave is actually do seafarers have the time? As with any transport business, ships only make money when they are moving,” he says. “A ship in port isn’t making any money. So there has been a huge move to speed up turnaround times and make everything more efficient.”

He notes that when he joined The Mission to Seafarers 20 years ago, the normal turnaround time in Rotterdam, where he was working, was 18 to 36 hours and the largest container ships were around 6,000 teu. “Now we have ships carrying 21,000 teu and the turnaround could be eight hours. When you consider that the seafarers are likely working three shifts, if they are in the terminal for eight hours the chances are that two-thirds of that time they are either working or sleeping.

“By reducing the crew on board, you heighten the issue. There used to be more seafarers on board and more opportunities for shore leave. Now, where we used to expect seafarers to go to the seafarers’ centre or go shopping, the reality is that if they need something they have to get it on the ship. And then there are the ports in the middle of nowhere. If you are on a tanker tied up 15 miles away on a buoy at the end of a long pier, it’s almost impossible to get off.”

Green complications
Even environmental considerations have an impact on the issue of shore leave for seafarers, says Helen Sampson, director of Cardiff University’s Seafarers International Research Centre (SIRC).

With ships now able to be notified of berth availability in real time, they can deliberately slow steam between ports to avoid arriving too early. This means that there is no opportunity for seafarers to getaway and enjoy some time away:

“It is about making the port call as efficient as possible, saving fuel and avoiding hanging around in port,” she says. “That makes sense from the environmental point of view but it doesn’t help the seafarer. Efficiency is always regarded as an important thing, but everyone forgets about the seafarers.”
SIRC published a report on mental health and wellbeing last year and Prof Sampson says that apart from the day they go home, seafarers reported the thing that made them happiest was going ashore with friends and colleagues.

“And yet, there are people who can never go ashore. If you are a chief officer in port, you are really pushed with work and it is rare that you have a chance to go ashore. If you are the captain, you are reluctant to go away from the ship. And in any case, if you arrive in a remote port at 2200 hrs, you are not going to get shore leave.”

The second big issue she lists is nationality. “I was on a ship when a seafarer was from Myanmar; because of the political issues, he couldn’t get off in any of the ports. My view was that the company should not have put him on that ship – it was on a fixed route with fixed calls, so it wasn’t a question of chance.”

Cost and accessibility are two other key issues preventing shore leave for seafarers from being taken. Prof Sampson relates how she was very struck by a visit to Rotterdam several years ago. The new terminals were so far from the city centre that it cost €60 to get a taxi to The Mission to Seafarers’ facility in the city centre. There was no public transport. “If you are a seafarer, you are just not going to do that,” she says.

And in any case, the unpredictability of the ship’s timetable adds another pressure as seafarers cannot stray too far because they must not delay the ship if loading finishes up a bit earlier than expected. “Lots of seafarers feel under pressure in this way – they need quite a big window of time.”

Heavy workloads
Philip Eastell and his colleagues have visited container ships where the master has simply not permitted shore leave for seafarers from being taken on account of the volume of work which needs to be done.

He talks of ro-ro ferries where the seafarers are on board for six months at a stretch and not allowed to step ashore unless for a medical emergency or death in the family. Shore leave for seafarers working onboard tankers and bulk carriers may be more likely to be taken because those vessels are likely to be in port for longer. However, this does depend on whether they can actually find a way to get from the vessel to the ‘outside world’.

As the co-founder of the industry group Container Shipping Supporting Seafarers (CSSS), he says the issue of shore leave for seafarers is a complex one.
“Shore leave is very much defined by which category of shipping you are in. On container ships, the nature of the business means being in port an average eight to 12 hours, which allows hardly any time, when taking into account that crew will be attending to the agencies and there are provisions to be loaded, rubbish to be taken off, spare parts to be taken on board.

“Most of the time, container ship crews find it very difficult to find time to go ashore. A lot of container ports have very strict controls on immigration, so it is difficult to get the documents signed, and there are also ISPS restrictions.”

Seafarers often rely on charities with a minibus to ferry them back and forth to seafarer centres or into town.

However, some ports are not allowing minibuses alongside – citing health and safety rules – so the only time seafarers getaway and go ashore is when stevedores are being taken to/from the ship. Many ports are very unwilling to let crew go beyond the gates.

The reality is even harsher for seafarers with specific passports – particularly in US ports, “where a whole raft of nationalities are not allowed ashore”, says Mr Eastell.

“Come ashore, we will welcome you? The reality of physically setting foot on land is far harder,” he says. “Where we see most effect on mental health is in the working time frame of the container ship. The fast turnaround in port means that the seafarer is working in an environment where they are basically captured. They can’t have the shore leave they would have hoped to achieve even a few years ago. The pressure is always for the quickest turnaround; it is in the line’s best interest to reduce the time spent in port and get the cargo from A to B more quickly. They are not going to say ‘let’s do a day in each port for the seafarers’. When the seafarers do have spare time, they are much more likely to be found in their cabins.”

Room for improvement
How could things improve? Prof Sampson says ports could improve transport services for seafarers. “They have relied for so many years on the Mission to provide the only bit of transport. You would think ports could provide some sort of scheduled transport to the nearest shopping mall.” Seafarers don’t want much, she adds. Ports, therefore, could do better at providing some sort of service within the port or just outside. “Why not allow for a cafeteria/shop/bar combined to be built just outside the port?”

She also highlights the need for information. “It is no good providing a shuttle service or a cafe if no one knows about it.”

Revd Miller echoes that; stating that technology should help in terms of accessing information and making the most of the limited time available.

Language can be a big barrier. When your ship ties up in another country, do you know if you can get a taxi or even whether you should? The Mission to Seafarers endeavours to provide information in the ports where it has a presence “but there are many ports where we are not” present.

In terms of improvements, he would like to see the Mission be more responsive to seafarers through the night. “Often our places are shut overnight but a ship might come in at 2200 hrs and be gone at 0600 hrs and perhaps someone may have needed someone to talk to or to be with.”

There is, he acknowledges, a fine line between the ‘commercial side’ and the ‘human side’ of shipping. The ideal might be increasing automation on board, leading to fewer seafarers, who could (in theory) benefit from having more money spent on them. “But of course, people put up with the situation they are in because they get paid and they can’t get jobs at home. The unions have to be aware that people are trying to provide for their families and they want to do the work.”

The challenges, he acknowledges, are to do with the nature of shipping: “In a perfect world, seafarers should be able to get off the ship. In reality, it is getting harder.”