Safety

How Safe is the 2021 Charter Season?

7 April 2021By Erica Lay
iStock/anyaberkut

Written by

Erica Lay

Owner of international crew agency EL CREW CO in Mallorca, Spain, Erica has been a freelance writer since 2008. She loves engaging with the projects she works on, diving headfirst into the research, investigation, and production of the stories she feels are newsworthy. A curious and proactive journalist, she draws on her own life experiences, her studies, and her work with crew all over the globe.

In a time of absolute uncertainty, the one thing we can all agree on is that 2020 was a year like no other. When COVID-19 struck and lockdowns were imposed in the spring, many wondered if there would even be a summer season for the yachting industry. But, months later, as the borders cautiously began to open up across Europe, restrictions eased, and countries like Croatia publicly welcomed back superyachts, the Med season tentatively began. Where many owners took the decision to skip this season completely, canceling all cruising plans, bringing winter maintenance projects forward, or keeping their yachts on a skeleton crew, some are attempting to keep things “business as usual.” Except it’s not usual. It’s not even a new usual. We are navigating troubled waters, and this is a challenging time.

Looking for Guidance

So where do we turn for guidance? Nautilus recommends we all follow advice from the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Maritime Health Association (IMHA), and the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS). The IMHA Coronavirus document hasn’t been updated since January and is now pretty outdated. The ICS has produced “Guidance for Ship Operators for the Protection of Health of Seafarers,” which seems to be the most detailed document currently available. It does seem more targeted towards commercial and passenger ships, but many parts are still extremely relevant, albeit quite broad and generic in places. So, are the yachts following the contents?

Well, due to the absence of any superyacht-specific legislation or guidance in place, it appears to be down to each individual yacht’s owner, or captain, to put procedures in place. We put the question out there to the yachting community: What’s happening on your yacht? What precautions are you taking? And we received some very interesting feedback. Please note, all names of yachts and crew have been changed to protect identities.

Well, due to the absence of any superyacht-specific legislation or guidance in place, it appears to be down to each individual yacht’s owner, or captain, to put procedures in place.

Crew Protocols

SY1 has been at anchor for the entire season, has provisions brought in by tender, and everything is fully disinfected on the aft deck before being brought into the vessel. All crew undergo weekly nasal swabs for COVID-19 at the owner’s request — he’s extremely health-conscious and the crew respect this and follow all protocols that have been set. Obviously, this is going to be a hard and long season for them with no time off the yacht at all, apart from time to swim, but as they told me, “This is hopefully a one-off and normally we’d get to go ashore. This year is different and we’re all just happy to have a job.”

Moving on from this extreme example, we have MY1 (private) and MY2 (charter). No crew may leave the vessels unless it’s for essential yacht business or personal exercise. “No pubs, no restaurants, and no busy shops,” the chief officer of MY2 says. “All crew are briefed on these procedures before employment, [and] we did this with enough notice to be able to replace them if they had objections. Crew dinners after charter are held on board, and we have relaxed some of the rules regarding crew use of guest areas to accommodate the reduction in freedom.” He went on to say they’d so far had no issues and had a “harmonious crew given the circumstances.” Both yachts’ crew have regular temperatures taken and strategy plans in place to prevent and deal with any infections.

iStock/Fotofid

Guest Protocols

This definitely seems to be the most sensible approach crew-wise, but what happens when a guest comes on board and tests positive? Infection on board could potentially wipe out the rest of the season, causing loss of income for those charter yachts, and a big old inconvenience for private owners.

Lots of yacht crew reported that in the light of having no official guidance from “above” (management, flag state, etc.), they are following the restrictions for each country they’re visiting. But how relevant are those regulations when they have been implemented for normal people with normal workplaces? Not floating hotels where everyone lives in very close proximity with regular trips ashore to shop and provision, and with guests coming and going. Are those regulations enough to protect crew and guests?

A chef on private SY2 told me they left Palma for Croatia as soon as the doors opened to yachts without imposing quarantine. They are following each country’s rules and laws as they visit and “behaving as the locals do.” They’re allowed to go to bars and restaurants, but no public transport. So far, they reported, so good. The crew were all acting responsibly, using masks, and socially distancing wherever possible.

Lots of yacht crew reported that in the light of having no official guidance from “above” (management, flag state, etc.), they are following the restrictions for each country they’re visiting. 

Let’s consider MY3 (private and charter). The captain and management company have taken a far more relaxed approach, requesting the crew use their common sense when going ashore. Spoiler alert, this turned out to be an epic fail when half the crew went on a day out socializing with friends from another charter yacht, MY4. No social distancing, no sign of common sense. A day later, they were called to be informed that two MY4 crew tested positive for COVID-19. No big shock that MY3’s crew immediately went into full lockdown — all crew were required to wear PPE, and the yacht was thoroughly disinfected while tests were carried out. 

Sadly, one crewmember tested positive. She was taken to a state facility (she was asymptomatic, not requiring medical help so no need to take her to a hospital) to be quarantined for two weeks, which incidentally sounds rather unpleasant and not far off from prison. The planned boss trip was immediately canceled until future tests for all crew would come back negative. The owner is said to be furious as he had just lost his holiday. And on top of that, they potentially lost a charter.

Let’s quickly return to MY4. Apparently, the charter guest knowingly came aboard infected with COVID. I’m sure there are a lot of legal ramifications here; however, could this have been avoided if management insisted on tests for all guests 24 hours before stepping on board? Or would that be a violation of rights? Are any yachts testing guests? The ICS’s document states that ships should have an “outbreak management plan” but do they? They also state “All ships are advised to implement pre-boarding screening.”

iStock/anyaberkut

Screening

While there might be recommendations for screening, are any vessels actually doing so?

Apparently so — for example, SY3, a heavy charter vessel, is testing their guests. The chief stewardess says, “I’ve just had my fourth test on one charter! We have the nasal swab before the start of each trip, and then once a week during trips we have the prick test. The guests are tested as often as the crew, and if they’d like us or themselves to be tested again then we do it.”

“Some of our guests are testing before travel, and some aren’t,” the chef from SY2 says. “All travel by private jet. As a crew, we’re not happy about guests arriving without tests but we can’t force them.”

“We’ve been doing prick tests on board for two months,” says the captain of SY4. “Before and after crew leave, before leaving for trips, and before guests arrive. It’s quick, easy, and relatively painless. Guests are having nasal swab testing before coming on board and have not complained about it. As this becomes more ‘normal’ practice to enter countries, we will all have to accept it, and the guests will as well.”

“Some of our guests are testing before travel, and some aren’t,” the chef from SY2 says. “All travel by private jet. As a crew, we’re not happy about guests arriving without tests but we can’t force them.”

The captain of MY1 says, “I am insisting on all guests being tested. I have a duty of care to protect everyone on board this vessel, [and] I want to ensure I do all I can to provide a safe working environment for my crew, and a safe environment for the guests. The happier everyone is, the easier life is! When our guests go ashore, they are being prudent. Wearing masks and taking precautions.” It seems like a very good approach to keeping all involved as safe as possible.

One captain felt very strongly about tests. “Testing is a violation of human rights — why not test for HIV or TB while you’re at it. Tests are so unreliable,” he says. He went on to use HIV as a comparable illness. He was definitely in the minority with his views, and sadly cited a lot of incorrect information, and as often happens, was unable to provide any sources for his “facts.” Most people felt quite strongly that they would prefer the discomfort of a nasal swab than risk possible long-term health problems. And as one chef pointed out, “To compare COVID with HIV is, quite frankly, bonkers. To contract HIV, I need to have sex with someone or be extremely unlucky with a blood transfusion. COVID-19 I can catch from just walking past someone who coughs at the wrong time.”

A stewardess from SY5 told me she felt very uncomfortable with her current situation. On board she says it’s “all a big show, with the captain and owner being very lax with controls.” She adds, “I feel any effort I make to keep things disinfected and clean is useless if we, as a collective, meaning crew AND guests, are not taking the greatest care.” And with regards to contractors, “they’re not made to wear a mask. There is hand sanitizer and masks available, but the captain won’t enforce use,” she says.

Another stew says nothing had changed on board her yacht. “Contractors and crew can do as they like,” she says. “It’s frustrating when you take care as an individual, but you have young horny boys on board, and they have an active social life.” Perhaps them bringing COVID home with them is the least of their worries.

A chef who lost her permanent job due to financial implications of the virus has resumed freelancing. She highlighted the differences between yachts. “On board in Catalonia, we took everything very seriously,” she says. “Washed all groceries, only one crewmember did all the shopping, lots of extra hygiene measures put in place. The next yacht was in France; they carried out no checks, no provisioning protocols, no shore-leave protocol, nothing! And the following two were the same. Admittedly quite unsettling, I follow my own protocols in lieu of no proper guidance.”


Yacht at anchor
iStock/Anna Gorbacheva

Job Repercussions

A very worrying element is the crew who have been fired due to contracting COVID. One stew contacted me to say, “I’m on a seasonal contract. It stipulated that this can be terminated if I contract an infectious disease.” A captain advised immediately that she contact flag as they have to approve the SEA, and “I hope they would not approve that.”

One crewmember tested positive and as the owner was coming, he was kept on board in quarantine for 14 days — after which they fired him. On inspecting his contract, he discovered a rather sneaky clause that basically stated if a crewmember was unable to carry out his/her duties for a period longer than 10 days, then it counts as gross misconduct, and as such, the crewmember can be instantly dismissed. This contradicts various other parts of the contract regarding the vessel’s duty of care to crew with regards to sickness or injury, so who will be able to resolve this? Let’s hope he can seek assistance from Nautilus and raise it with flag.

One crewmember tested positive and as the owner was coming, he was kept on board in quarantine for 14 days — after which they fired him.

And the latest news from MY3, the boat with the infected crewmember? Well, apparently once they get the all clear, the captain is not going to adopt any of the sensible procedures yachts like MY1 and MY2 are operating with. He insists his crew will use their common sense. As he was proved horribly wrong before, is this not playing with fire? Why is the management company or the owner not putting rules in place if he won’t? Was it not Einstein who said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results”?

As yacht captains continue trying to figure out the best way to navigate through the summer without upsetting owners or their crew, we are sadly coming to the realization that COVID-19 is a problem that’s not going away. Many are calling for flag states to give guidance, or for the MCA to address this. In the meantime, many hope for management companies to take the lead and devise good standard procedures specifically for superyachts, and then roll them out across their fleets. Once this is done, then we can work on these plans, adapting, evolving, and making improvements and adjustments, but until then, it seems we’re all just about staying afloat.

This feature is taken from the October 2020 issue of Dockwalk.

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