The United Nation’s World Maritime Day held at the end of September shone a light on the professionalism displayed by many, and the extent of the sacrifice that millions of seafarers have endured since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis. The work done by so many seafarers is critical –  whether by those within our industry, keeping billions of people connected with internet access as well as supplied with power, or those working in shipping which continues to transport the majority of world trade, including vital medical supplies and other goods critical for the COVID-19 response and recovery. However, the pandemic hasn’t been easy for this community, as hundreds of thousands of seafarers face a humanitarian crisis after being stranded at sea, unable to get off the ships they work on, with contracts extended by many months in some cases.

At Global Marine Group, our fleet operations team have been working tirelessly with agencies, governments and unions across the world since the beginning of the year to effect crew changes in a safe and timely manner for the wellbeing of our crews, safe operations of the vessels and the continuation of projects. This has been no mean feat, and a sharp learning curve which hasn’t concluded yet. Whilst the pandemic seemed to be easing over the summer, the challenges for crew changes as well as vessel services and repairs have not let up.  

As a Group we have over 500 seafarers across the world, and since the pandemic struck we have utilised many different ports, working with our customers to re-route vessels on live projects to successfully ensure that those working extended contracts have been relieved to return home for leave.

We spoke to Nicholas Hillcoat, our Marine Manager, about how we’ve been reacting to the evolving situation and lessons that we’re continuing to learn as an industry, months after the initial outbreak.

When did you first hear about COVID-19, and what were the first steps that the business took?

We were first made aware in January this year when COVID-19 started gaining more traction in China. As we have a vessel that operates in the region, we began monitoring the situation there quite closely, to ensure we could protect our people and vessel. Our initial actions were to put a block on all travel for our seafarers through the publicly declared infected areas.

Like most people, you probably never imagined it panning out like it did?

We certainly never expected the virus to gain so much traction and develop into a global pandemic. As we have a global footprint with both our vessel locations and people, we have had to adapt quickly to COVID-19.

What have been the main overall implications of COVID-19 on the manning and operation of our fleet?

We have encountered many challenges as direct result of COVID-19, ranging from; crew changes, dry docking and spares transport.

The biggest manning challenge has been completing crew changes. At the onset of the pandemic in March, as a company we made the decision to put in place a suspension on crew changes for all the vessels in the fleet. The suspension of crew changes allowed us time to evaluate personnel movements to ensure we were protecting our seafarers and vessels as best we could.

As we have vessels located all over the world, finding ways to change out personnel has become a major challenge for us. Every country has reacted differently to their response to COVID-19, many of whom made the decision to close their borders with little or no warning. With the suspension in place, we were able to evaluate all of our options and as soon as we were confident that we had enough mitigation measures in place, we were able to facilitate small numbers of crew changes on the vessels. However there remained lots of issues, regulation changes and entry restrictions, many of which often changed on a daily basis. With border closures in many of the countries we operate in, we often had to send vessels to countries outside their normal operating area in order to facilitate these crew changes.

Whilst we hope to keep vessels COVID-19 free, what contingency measures have you put in place?

In April, at the start of the pandemic, GMG were involved with an emergency response exercise with Vattenfall using one of our vessels currently on charter to them. Whilst we have been doing everything we can to ensure our vessels remain sterile environments – from quarantining before joining, testing and restricted shore leave – the exercise was designed to test both companies’ responses to a COVID-19 incident onboard a vessel should it arise.

The exercise tested responses both onboard the vessel as well as ashore with the designated emergency response teams. With updated procedures, clear plans in place and well briefed teams, the exercise was a success.

COVID-19 has been a learning experience for everyone – dealing with a global pandemic on this scale has never been done before.

How have our teams coped with the added pressure and different ways of working?

The last few months have put major pressure on the Fleet Department, Seafarers and vessels. During the early stages of the pandemic, we as a department were on the frontline in dealing with the challenges imposed by keeping seafarers safe, swathing lockdowns, border closures to name a few.

At the start of the year our seafarers could never have imagined when they joined a vessel, they would soon be faced with a global pandemic that effectively kept them confined onboard for extended periods – often weeks and months over their contract length. Over the past few months, we have witnessed an overwhelming determination from our offshore teams right across the board; they have pulled together as a team like never before, something that we have huge admiration and appreciation for.  

What efforts has the business gone to, to support those offshore?

As an organisation with the bulk of our workforce working at sea, many of whom work hands on with our cable operations and don’t spend time sitting behind computers, we’ve always been conscious of different ways that we can communicate to ensure our colleagues feel part of the wider Group. But this has never been more important than now. At the early onset of the pandemic, we made sure that communications between the vessels and shore were as transparent as possible to ensure that all parties were being kept up to date. It’s been an unfamiliar situation for all of us so doing everything we can to keep morale high has been a priority for us.

As part of our efforts to support those offshore we introduced schemes such as the family liaison contact for those with concerns for their loved ones back home, or to offer support to partners and children in the longer than expected absence of those at sea. We also worked closely with an NHS doctor to help answer many of the unknowns about COVID-19, and learn about the best practices for ensuring that our teams remained fit and well. Combine this with our regular ‘Ask Me Anything’ sessions where no question is off the cards, regularly updated intranet portal for all things COVID-19, training for Mental Health First Aiders across the business as well as our internal networking facility Yammer encouraging open conversations, we’ve endeavoured to navigate these complex few months and alleviate the stresses and worries that it has brought to many of us.  

Looking back over the last few months, what have been the key learnings that we’ve taken away – how could we have done things better?

COVID-19 has been a learning experience for everyone – dealing with a global pandemic on this scale has never been done before.

The reiteration of the need to communicate, more than you ever think, has been key for us during this time. As already mentioned, we put clear channels of two-way communication in place from the beginning of the pandemic, but looking back although it felt like enough at the time, we could have increased these further to ensure that the rationale behind decisions that were made centrally were more clearly understood by everyone across the business. This was particularly the case with those seafarers who were on shore leave at the time but beginning to return to vessels so needed to be briefed on the new ways of working.

The management team were quick to take decisions with regards to implementing new health and safety mitigations; however we were possibly too slow to remove or lessen these new procedures as and when it was safe to do so.

Another big learning point was not to rely on restrictions and regulations being set in stone; we’ve learnt from the first-hand experience now that these can change without notice. COVID-19 has, and will continue to be, an ever-changing situation that requires constant review and adaptions in the way we operate. We’re not out of the woods yet and I’m sure there will be many lessons still to learn but together we will get through it.

We’re not out of the woods yet – what do you foresee as the next big hurdles before we reach a greater level of ‘normality’?

The biggest and most challenging hurdle continues to be the free movement of seafarers around the world. Every country has their own policies in place for dealing with COVID-19 which will continue to be imposed on personnel moving in and out of those countries, including seafarers. We continue to work with governments and other agencies to lobby for seafarers to be deemed essential key workers, to ensure that safe crew changes can take place.

As parts of the world begin to see a second wave of the virus and restrictions which only recently eased begin to tighten again for our own safety, the challenge continues. However with the increased strain on the UK’s power and fibre optic infrastructures, it’s more important than ever that the systems we rely on are well maintained and a large part of this process is ensuring that the web of subsea cables that keep our power on and our internet connected, remain fully operational – activities at the core of what Global Marine Group and our business units do.