A lifeline for seafarers waiting for crew changes has indeed being thrown by Sri Lanka, which straddles a major shipping lane. It has approved crew changes through a passenger ship positioned off the Port of Galle to function as an Offshore Crew Transit Hub (OCTH) with the expectation that OCTH would minimize seafarer interaction with local society.
Arriving seafarers are directly transferred to the OCTH where they remain until connectivity is established with the joining ship for an on-signer or with the flight for an off-signer. Ships are not delayed as on-signers come early and wait for arrival of the ships and are transferred promptly.
Seafarers are permitted to arrive in the country only in chartered flights to the Southern international airport of Mattala and will be directly transferred to the Offshore Crew Transit Hub in disinfected dedicated buses. In order to further minimise any likelihood of cross contamination, seafarers are not permitted in commercial passenger flights as other passengers in those flights go on to join the local society. The country has a relatively low impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, having successfully contained the virus and keen to keep it that way.
Understandably, seafarers arriving by chartered flights are required to have a negative PCR report of a test taken within 72 hours of boarding the flight and certified to have stayed in isolation from the time of the test. That effectively eliminates any possibility of virus being imported to the country through any one of them. No PCR tests are done on arrival in Sri Lanka.
It is reported that the Sri Lankan government has been deeply concerned by reports of IMO, ITF, ICS and many others about the dire straits of seafarers stranded at sea, hopelessness of relief seafarers waiting for employment, and predicament of ship owners and ship managers unable to change crew.
The concept has added an extra dimension also. Since seafarers are permitted to arrive in Sri Lanka only in chartered flights and not commercial passenger flights, other avenues have been probed, especially of countries close-by that allow seafarers to arrive by commercial passenger flights. Thereafter, a chartered flight is arranged to Sri Lanka from these locations fulfilling the requirement of Sri Lanka that seafarers arriving in the country should be only by chartered flights. Male, in the Republic of Maldives, and Dubai, of UAE, both allow seafarers to arrive by commercial passenger flights. Any seafarer from any part of the world, just has to get to these airports and then proceed to Sri Lanka in chartered flights arranged by the operator.
Whatever option, it is said that the final cost is almost the same as, if not lower than, rates during normal times, hence very attractive.
In order to give credence to the operation, Sri Lanka has gone one step further of carrying out the operation through a Public-Private-Partnership. It is understood that the whole process has been conceptualised and presented by Avant Garde Maritime Services (AGMS), the global leader in providing maritime security a few years ago when sea piracy was rampant. They have joined hands with a government owned security company called Rakna Arakshaka Lank Ltd (RALL), which is under the Ministry of Defence, where RALL monitors, controls and audits the operation on behalf of the government to ensure strict adherence to established stringent health protocols.
Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) have been established by Sri Lankan health authorities as well as the operator and are available online.
This is a relief for the whole international shipping community, mostly for seafarers, without whom international trade would come to a complete standstill.
It is said that Horace Walpole had Sri Lanka in mind when in the eighteenth century he coined the word serendipity meaning good fortune and luck, which coincidentally is appropriate in the present context also, as it appears that Sri Lanka has once again brought good fortune and luck for crew changing seafarers.