Crew Management

COVID-19: Quarantining Crew on Board

9 September 2020By Kate Lardy
iStock/Jules_Kitano

Written by

Kate Lardy

Based in Fort Lauderdale, freelance writer Kate Lardy got her start in the yachting industry working as crew. She spent five years cruising the Bahamas, Caribbean, New England, and Central America, then segued that experience into a career in marine journalism, which has included stints as editor of Dockwalk and ShowBoats International.

Motor yacht Positive Thinking in Fort Lauderdale was scheduled to pick up a charter in Nassau in four days. The Bahamas Prime Minister had just announced a halt to commercial air and vessel traffic from the U.S., but as their guests were arriving by private plane, and since they were technically a private boat under their flag, they would be able to clear in. All they needed was a negative COVID-19 RT-PCR (swab) test from all crew.

The captain wasn’t overly concerned about this. No one was showing symptoms, and everyone on board had been following local restrictions and recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They always wore their masks when off the boat, and they had been avoiding crowds and sanitizing all high-touch areas on the boat at least twice daily. He had gone a step further and banned his crew from going inside gyms or restaurants.

Nine days before they were scheduled to arrive in The Bahamas, they went for testing at an urgent-care facility to stay comfortably within the 10-day testing window needed to enter the country, but the nurse informed them it would take longer than the usual three days to get the results due to extremely high demand. Now it was getting down to the wire and the captain was getting anxious. Authorized to receive all the crew’s results, he called again and was told they were in. “Finally,” he thought, but his relief was short-lived; a deckhand had tested positive. Now what? Would he have to cancel the trip, or could he just put the deckhand ashore in a hotel and monitor the rest of the crew?

This is an increasingly common scenario, says Dr. David Farnie, medical director of MedAire’s Global Response Center. “MedAire would assess the risk of exposure to the rest of the crew to confirm if ‘close contact’ criteria is met. Close contact criteria is defined as greater than fifteen minutes together with spacing between individuals at less than six feet or direct contact with secretions or if coughed on,” says Dr. Farnie.

“We recommend not heading out to sea until fourteen days from last close contact with COVID-19-positive crewmember if everyone on board remains without symptoms,” says Dr. Farnie.

Unfortunately, on a yacht where crew are living on board, sharing quarters and meals, this means many, if not all, crew may be considered close contacts. Not only should the person who tested positive be quarantined (“off the ship in a hotel is best,” says Dr. Farnie), but, “everyone who meets close contact criteria should also quarantine for fourteen days,” he advises. “All crew should self-monitor and check for fever and symptoms for fourteen days — if any symptoms develop, immediately isolate and get tested.” He adds that further testing during this quarantine period won’t help shorten the time since the incubation period can be up to 14 days.

He also says the yacht should be cleaned thoroughly, concentrating on the areas frequently touched by hands and common areas. “In addition, we would recommend the captain consider enhanced hygiene/social distancing measures on the ship — examples: barrier mask, such as a bandana, scarf, or cloth mask; increased cleaning procedures of the areas discussed above; hand gel stations; mandating crew clean hands before entering any common area or galley; having crew maintain social distancing of two meters from other crew (this may necessitate rolling meal times to limit the number of crew in the galley at once); and having crew wipe areas down before/after they eat.

“We recommend not heading out to sea until fourteen days from last close contact with COVID-19-positive crewmember if everyone on board remains without symptoms,” says Dr. Farnie.

A guidance note from the Cayman Islands Shipping Registry about the impact of COVID-19 on operations reminds their ships that any seafarer who is diagnosed with the virus while employed would be entitled to medical care and sick leave as per their SEA, the law, and MLC. And that “any mandatory quarantine not in or at the seafarer’s agreed place of repatriation on joining or leaving a ship should be considered as the seafarer still being in the service of the ship and therefore paid accordingly.”

Bluewater has come up with a solution for yachts to operate more safely during the pandemic. It has available on its new Yachtshop website a portable Rapid Antigen Testing Device that can be dispatched directly to yachts in the EU, UK, and U.S. Manufactured in the U.S., the device can detect the presence of the COVID-19 virus in both its pre-symptomatic and symptomatic stages via a nasal swab test. Results are available within 15 minutes and the device is fully mobile so a yacht can ensure guests and crew are virus-free before they board.

As Dr. Farnie points out, captains have to keep on top of COVID-19 case activity in their current and future ports and plan for potential exposure and impact. Not leaving port until all confirmed cases have been resolved and all close contacts remain symptom-free for 14 days will reduce the chances of someone getting ill at sea. That would necessitate notifying the health authorities at the arrival port, which can subject all on board to an involuntary quarantine and a No Sail Order, and there may not be adequate medical care in some locations if a patient’s condition worsens.

This article originally ran in the September 2020 issue of Dockwalk.

More from Dockwalk