Six months of lockdown aboard and with no pay

The 2020 pandemic has magnified many common hardships faced by seafarers – anxiety, long separations from families, low wages, often dangerous working environments, cramped living conditions and limited time ashore. Indonesian Deck Officer, Komang*, tells his story.

He and nearly 600 shipmates were trapped on their ship at Tilbury Docks by COVID-19. They had been forbidden to disembark or set sail again by the UK authorities after a six-month stint at sea that culminated in a marathon 30-day voyage from Freemantle, Australia, to London.

It meant they were forced to endure a further six months locked down aboard. Many among the crew were made redundant during this enforced confinement and everyone had great problems securing their wages – meaning that most ran out of money quickly.

For father-of-one, Komang, a seafarer for 14 years, this was a particularly stressful time as he was left entirely without funds and could not continue to send money home to his family. Even worse, he was unable even to let his wife know why the cash she relied on so much had stopped; he could not pay his phone bill and the crew’s employer had cut off all company devices and onboard internet access.
During this miserable period of extreme economic adversity and isolation, little luxuries and vital supplies – such as chocolate, playing cards soaps and razors, provided by the Tilbury Seafarers Centre – became ‘lifesavers’. The gifts boosted morale and mental wellbeing hugely and made a cramped, anxious existence that little bit more bearable.

Crucially, the Centre, which receives grants from Seafarers UK, also provided SIM cards and handheld digital devices – MiFi units – for the ship’s company, so that everyone could at last speak to their loved ones.

Seafarers UK and our partners have provided many stranded crews with these clever devices during the pandemic. They tap into 3G, 4G or 5G mobile phone networks, employing the connection to create a mini wireless broadband hotspot. This can then be readily shared between mobile devices that fall withing its signal footprint — such as phones, tablets and laptops.

Komang said: “Being able to communicate with our families, reassure them we were safe and find out how they were managing was incredible. The psychological benefits of talking to your nearest and dearest cannot be overstated: often not being able to when far out at sea is one of the biggest problems for us, but being prevented from staying in touch when moored in the centre of one of the world’s biggest and best connected cities was unbearable.

“Tilbury Seafarers Centre really did become an irreplaceable bridge between us and the outside world.” Komang’s employment options have become more limited because of the pandemic’s economic fallout, with many employers he has worked for in the past being forced out of business. However, we will continue to depend heavily on brave, dedicated professionals like him – as they bring us more than 90% of the goods we need for both our survival and quality of life.

And their survival and quality of life are our concerns. We have been helping the maritime community for more than a century, providing vital aid to seafarers in need and their families.

Indeed, last year, with the help of our generous supporters we helped over 209,000 people in a wide variety of difficulties – and your continued support is needed as we brighten Christmas for many and redouble our efforts to tackle COVID-19’s impact in 2021.

*name changed to protect anonymity