Braving the seas during the pandemic

Aziz Idris

When Captain Mohatarshah bin Haji Othman, also known as Captain Jijie, boarded the Brunei Gas Carriers (BGC) tanker Amani in December 2019, he expected the voyage to be the same like his other trips during his 18-year career at sea.

His trip usually will last for three months. But when the coronavirus pandemic hit, he along with his crew of 35, had to continue working up to six months.

Many seafarers were working beyond normal tour lengths as they could not disembark.

Those who needed to get on board the ships also faced the issue of travel restrictions as many needed to travel to other countries for crew changes.

It led to mounting concerns about the mental health and well-being of thousands of seafarers stranded on these vessels, anxious about their families at home.

A view of Brunei Gas Carriers tanker. PHOTOS: AZIZ IDRIS/ BRUNEI GAS CARRIERS
Captain Mohatarshah bin Haji Othman

“During that time (in March), everyone onboard felt restless and worried for their family and their own safety when visiting foreign terminals. A lot of questions were being asked,” said the captain during an interview with the Bulletin.

The welfare, safety, health and mental well-being of his crew on-board was an on-going concern. It was Captain Jijie’s duty to help maintain a positive attitude and mindset for his crew. “We treated everyone on-board like family. We have an open communication policy to encourage everyone to speak up and share their concerns and dilemmas, so appropriate action could be taken to assist and solve the issues that arise.”

He praised his colleagues from the BGC onshore team and cooperation from his crew on-board for observing the standard operating procedures (SOP) introduced by BGC during these challenging times which he said have made things much “smoother and in order”.

Seafarers are on the frontline of the COVID-19 pandemic, playing an essential role in maintaining the flow of vital goods.

Some 80 per cent of global trade volume is done via commercial vessels carrying dry bulk commodities, merchandise in containers and energy products in tankers.

Unlike health workers, emergency services personnel and aircrew, 1.2 million seafarers who maintain supplies unfortunately do not qualify for exemptions to COVID-19 travel restrictions. This means that many workers have been on-board for up to a year without a break.

“With a lot of restrictions in place worldwide due to the pandemic, the world needs to come up with a strategy and work together internationally to enable crew relief/change to happen to avoid seafarers being on-board over their normal tour length,” said Captain Jijie.

Every year BGC marks the annual World Maritime Day, which takes place on September 24 and promotes the importance of shipping as well as the challenges faced by the industry.

This year, BGC celebrates World Maritime Day to raise awareness and recognise seafarers as key workers and to provide them with support, assistance and travel options during a pandemic.

For Captain Jijie, World Maritime Day means an “appreciation day and honour given to all those working tirelessly in maritime industry – to make sure the transportation of all the world’s supplies like medical supplies, rations, and fuel are uninterrupted and arrive at their destinations safely during this difficult time.” BGC thanked all its staff at sea for making sure the nation’s precious cargo is delivered safely and reliably, and wished them a Happy World Maritime Day.