Covid Safety - Troubled Waters
In a time of absolute uncertainty, the one thing we can all agree on is that 2020 is a year like no other. When Covid 19 struck and lockdowns 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 off and countries like Croatia publicly welcomed back superyachts, the Med season tentatively began. Where many owners took the decision to skip this season completely, cancelling all cruising plans, bringing winter maintenance projects forward, or keeping their yachts on 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.
So where do we turn for guidance? Nautilus recommends we all follow advice from The World Health Organisation (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 The IMHA Coronavirus document hasn’t been updated since January and is now pretty outdated.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 have 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.
We start with SY 1. At anchor for the entire season, provisions brought in by tender, everything fully disinfected on the aft deck before being brought into the vessel. All crew undergoing weekly nasal swabs for Covid 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 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. The Chief officer of MY2 told me, “no pubs, no restaurants and no busy shops. All crew are briefed on these procedures before employment, we did this with enough notice to be able to replace them if they had objections. Crew dinners after charter are held onboard, and we have relaxed some of the rules regarding crew use of guest areas to accommodate the reduction in freedom.” He went on to tell me 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.
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 put in place 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.” 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.
Let’s consider MY3 (private and charter). Captain and management 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 socialising 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 2 MY4 crew were positive for Covid. No big shock that MY3’s crew immediately went into full lockdown, all crew required to wear PPE and the yacht was thoroughly disinfected whilst tests 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 prison. The planned boss trip was immediately cancelled until future tests for all crewmembers come back negative. The owner is said to be furious as he has just lost his holiday. And on top of that they’ve 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 great deal 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.”
Apparently so, for example SY3, a heavy charter vessel, is testing their guests. Chief Stew told me, “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.”
The chef from SY2 told me “Some of our guests are testing before travel, and some aren’t. All travel by private jet. As a crew we’re not happy about guests arriving without tests but we can’t force them.”
Captain of SY4 told me, “We’ve been doing prick tests on board for 2 months. 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.”
The Captain of MY1 said “I am insisting on all guests being tested. I have a duty of care to protect everyone on board this vessel, 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.” 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 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, unable to provide any sources for his “facts”. Most people felt quite strongly that they would prefer the discomfort of a nasal swab that 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 Stew 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 added “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, she went on to say “they’re not made to wear a mask. There is hand sanitiser and masks available but the captain won’t enforce use.”
Another stew said nothing had changed on board her yacht. “Contractors and crew can do as they like. It’s frustrating when you take care as an individual, but you have young horny boys onboard 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, “Onboard in Catalonia, we took everything very seriously. Washed all groceries, only one crew member 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.”
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 crew member 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 which basically stated if a crew member 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 crew member 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.
And the latest news from, MY3, you remember the one with the infected crew member? 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.”? Well, he’s got a point…
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 realisation that Covid 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, make improvements and adjustments, but until then, it seems we’re all just about staying afloat.
For some helpful advice, you can find info here in Nautilus’s FAQ Covid page: https://www.nautilusint.org/en/news-insight/telegraph/nautilus-faqs-on-covid19-coronavirus/