Setting foot on foreign soil

Operators and charterers need to be reminded that shore leave is a necessity, not a luxury

By Felicity Landon

Go to sea and see the world – how is that working out? Too often, seafarers can’t even get off their ship to do a bit of shopping or buy a coffee. As the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) says: “Shore leave is not a luxury. It is essential for seafarers who spend many weeks cooped up at their workplace, with only work mates and managers for company.”

The Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) 2006 states that seafarers “must have adequate leave and be granted shore leave to benefit their health and wellbeing in line with the operational
requirements of their positions”.

While Covid-19 brought unbearable restrictions on shore leave, those limits at least came in extreme circumstances. But shore leave is still not a ‘given’ around the world, with pressures and pushbacks continuing in some quarters.

Fabrizio Barcellona, the ITF’s seafarers’ section co-ordinator, said shore leave issues were “complicated in some areas”, adding “we have had to battle for years for some reason”. Sometimes limits are based on nationality, sometimes on other requirements within the port. “Certainly, since the pandemic, it seems to have been taken to another level, unfortunately.”

During the peak of the pandemic, companies did not permit shore leave because of the risk of infection when crew mixed with other people – that was understandable, he said. “But now, everywhere except for a few countries, the restriction has eased. It is not understandable why there is still this reluctance to allow seafarers to go ashore. And it seems from the information we are gathering, it is more from the [shipping] companies that there is some denial of shore leave, rather than the shore-based facilities.”

One reason is that some charterers sign a charter party with the shipowner for ‘Covid-free ships’, so the shipowner is afraid that the agreement would be at risk should someone catch Covid. It’s
something of a turnaround: “During the pandemic, the vast majority of charterers stayed outside the conversation [about
shore leave], claiming it was not their business,” Barcellona said.

Caught in the middle

There have been other shore leave obstacles in recent times – for example, some port States demanding that seafarers must have a shore leave pass, a cost which the ship owner doesn’t want to pay; or Italy all but denying shore leave by limiting seafarers to an area adjacent to the port and city boundary. “For example, a seafarer on board in Civitavecchia couldn’t visit Rome, while in other countries, with five or six hours ashore, you can go as far
as you want.”

In the aftermath of 9/11, the US penalised specific nationalities. More recently there was a dispute between Brazil and the US: “There was a kind of battle after Brazil ratified the MLC and it was holding American seafarers on board because the US had not.”

In short, seafarers are often caught in the middle of disputes they have no control over.

But most often, said Barcellona, Covid is being used as the excuse to keep seafarers on board. “Shore leave doesn’t take anything away from the company. It allows the seafarer to relax and go back with a clear mind to perform their work even better,” he said. “I think there is the fear of ‘Covid ships’ and the risk associated with that: all the crew with Covid and the ship unable to move, or half of them with Covid, so extra work for those without Covid.”

The ITF continues to work with the International Labour Organization to remind everyone of their obligation under the MLC as well as the importance of shore leave, he said.

“Going ashore, at least to the seafarer centre, allows seafarers to purchase goods, have a coffee, exchange words with someone other than the 16-18 people they see every day for months. Whatever they do when they are ashore is irrelevant, it is really just changing the scene.”

During lockdown, crew started to experience mental disturbance after a few weeks, he noted. “It is important to get ashore – to visit a shopping centre or church, or to meet local people with a link to home.”

Some seafarers go ashore to replenish prescription medicines that the company or chandler cannot provide. Not being able to do that can jeopardise health. Women seafarers might need to buy sanitary products that are not easy to find on board.

“Seafarers will plan ahead, knowing they want to go into a shop or other place in a specific port call. When that possibility is denied, it increases the mental stress they are under,” said Barcellona.

Everybody wins

It is in everyone’s interest to ensure seafarers are well rested and fully charged, said Captain Kuba Szymanski, secretary general of InterManager, the trade association for the ship and crew management sector. “Seafarers are responsible for operating a complex and valuable ship, work long hours and effectively live in their workplace for months at a time, and they play a hugely important part in the global supply chain. Therefore, shore leave is extremely important.

“Ship and crew managers absolutely understand this and have been strongly advocating and lobbying with owners, ports, and international authorities, highlighting the need to provide unobstructed provisions for shore leave.”

The Covid-19 situation created a lot of friction and frustration on board ships, where seafarers often felt mistreated, said Szymanski. “Often it appeared that the cargo was essential, but the people were not welcome. Sadly, some ports are continuing this approach and still restricting or preventing shore leave and this attitude is very disheartening. We should not treat our fellow human beings in this way.”

Countries and ports need to allow seafarers ashore to rest and recharge, and to use the services available to them, such as those provided by The Mission to Seafarers, he added. “We must keep in focus the core fact: Ships bring trade, people operate those ships!”

The times when going to sea meant an opportunity to travel are gone, noted Szymanski. “Today, seafarers are professional people who spend the majority of their time on board a very sophisticated piece of machinery.

Today’s ship consists of a minimum of 2,700 pieces of equipment and seafarers find themselves surrounded by technology. “How do we humans ‘recharge our batteries’? Many of us love to walk, to visit a coffee shop, or maybe just to go shopping. Some would like to go to church, to the gym or maybe to play bowls. Ashore there are numerous options for leisure time. This is not the case on board ship.”

Different rules

Across port States, ports and shipping companies, the stories vary from good to dreadful.

We have heard about the bulk carrier that arrived at Teesport, UK, in September, with a crew who had been denied shore leave for up to ten months – and their contracts had been extended for a similar length of time.

In August, it was reported that Chennai Port had agreed to grant Indian seafarers shore leave, subject to dual vaccination and mask-wearing, but that seafarers of foreign vessels would not be granted shore leave.

In the same month, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) issued a marine notice drawing attention to the importance of providing shore leave to seafarers for ships visiting Australian ports, reminding companies, owners and masters of the MLC requirements.

A spokesman for AMSA told The Sea: “AMSA has been made aware of two instances of foreign crews being denied shore leave in Portland due to fear of catching Covid from the local community. In response, AMSA made contact with the vessel masters, and in both cases shore leave was granted.

“Provided the provisions of state and health authorities are met, access to shore leave for seafarers is a requirement under the MLC. AMSA Port State Control officers may take action when there are clear grounds to believe the master or officers in charge of ships have not complied with the requirements, as set out in the MLC 2006, for seafarer shore leave.”

Transport Canada recently issued a bulletin to remind authorised representatives and masters of vessels of their legal obligation to approve shore leave.

Issued after intense lobbying efforts in Canada by the ITF, the bulletin drew attention to the MLC requirements and stated: “Authorised representatives of foreign ships in Canadian waters are expected to make every effort to approve shore leave for seafarers as soon as possible after a ship’s arrival in port, which is essential for seafarer physical and mental health.

“As a foreign vessel operating in Canadian waters, your vessel can be inspected to make sure you are complying with the Canada Shipping Act, 2001 and international conventions. During port State control inspections, Port State Control Officers will ensure that seafarers are granted shore leave in accordance with the provisions of the MLC 2006.”

Guiding principles

In 2022, the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) published updated advice on shore leave. The Coronavirus (Covid-19): Seafarer Shore Leave Principles state: “Shipowners recognise the importance of shore leave to seafarers. Shore leave can help to mitigate fatigue and reduce stress from long voyages and a long time away from home.”

Enabling shore leave can be challenging and can be influenced by many factors, including the ship’s schedule, the time spent on a port call, conditions in certain ports and the availability of port facilities, says the ICS advice. However, it says: “Not going ashore, or not accessing normal social respite and changes of scenery, can seriously impact seafarers’ mental health.”

Natalie Shaw, the ICS’s director of employment affairs, told The Sea that the aim is to give companies a route “to properly risk assess shore leave”.

“Since Covid, of course there have been a lot of concerns,” she said. “The leaflet talks about the pros and cons of shore leave – but also how you risk assess before a ship goes into port, to see if it is or isn’t appropriate to have shore leave. Some companies are saying a blanket ‘no’, but we say it shouldn’t be a blanket ‘no’, you should be risk-assessing.”

Some companies just don’t want to put seafarers at risk, “so there are always two sides of the coin”, she said. “If 20 of you live in close proximity on a vessel, and two go on shore leave and bring back Covid-19, the chance of it spreading, even with the best measures in place on board, are high – and that can have a really adverse effect on others.”

The ICS is trying to discourage the bad practice of companies ‘ruling out shore leave full stop’ becoming the norm, said Shaw. “Why do people want to go to sea – it’s because they perceive they are going to travel the world and see glamorous places.”

If they don’t even get shore leave, that will put people off a career at sea, she noted. “Obviously, shore leave can help with mental health – just a change of scene, a pie and a pint, or whatever.”

Shaw said it is often smaller companies running with limited crew and on a contract-to-contract basis that are frightened of allowing shore leave. However, she also points to pressures from charter party agreements. “The charterer doesn’t want to put at risk their goods getting from A to B on time. So they say, if you as a shipping company take on my contract, there can be no shore leave.

“We would argue that the charterers are doing themselves a disservice because when seafarers don’t get relaxation, etc., there is more likely to be a problem.”