Braving the sea in pandemic times

Three employees at Brunei Gas Carriers Sdn Bhd share their experiences amid travel restrictions and heightened measures.

By Izah Azahari

The COVID-19 pandemic has heavily affected the world in the past two years, be it on an individual, business or country level. The health crisis has led to the adaptation of the new normal to keep the coronavirus at bay.

Brunei Gas Carriers Sdn Bhd (BGC) Operations Support Superintendent, David Teo, Chief Engineer, Alvin Yap and Chief Officer, Lim Hooi Yan shared insights into the impact it has on seafarers, both from a personal and operational perspective.

Prior to the pandemic, they shared that the tours would normally last between three to four months. When the first wave hit, the duration got extended, with some being out at sea for half a year, due to global travel restrictions.

“In terms of our fleet operations, our communications with vessels are not as affected, in a sense, as we are still able to communicate on a regular basis via emails and make phone calls to the vessels when required,” Teo said, adding that the priority is to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the seafarers because if a person gets infected onboard, the vessel may be denied entry – or even quarantined – at foreign ports, not unlike what happened to a crew ship in Japan.

However, on a personal level, he shared that the biggest challenge is to ascertain that his parents and daughter are safe, especially during the second wave of COVID-19.

To manage the impact of the pandemic situation, BGC established its own COVID-19 Task Force that is made up of individuals from various departments. At minimum, weekly meetings are held to ensure that the standard operating procedures (SOPs) align with the latest guidelines provided by the Ministry of Health (MoH), Ministry of Energy (ME), Maritime and Port Authority of Brunei Darussalam (MPABD) as well as the country requirements of the ports that the vessels frequent internationally.

“The main objective is to ensure that none of our staff is infected,” he said. “We have bi-weekly meetings with our vessels to cascade all the updates while receiving feedback and concerns to understand the limitations of our operation both locally and internationally.”

Getting the crew onboard the vessels since the first wave of the pandemic, he said, has been challenging, especially for the international seafarers, as they have to undergo a 14-day quarantine in the Sultanate and comply with other pre-travel requirements prior to their scheduled onsigning.

Yap said due to the Brunei Government’s success in getting everything under control during the first wave, self-isolation was not a requirement for the crew prior to boarding the vessel. However, the frequency of crew changes was limited to once a month and via Brunei only. During the second wave, the company took the initiative to initially implement a 14-day quarantine requirement which has since now been reduced to 7 days. Also, the frequency of crew changes has now been happening on a regular basis with additional testing requirements in place.

“Fourteen days is quite a long time because after a week, one starts to feel restless and fidgety,” he said.

“I put my trust in the company as I know they are doing their best to get people relieved on time in spite of the pandemic measures,” Yap added.

Given that he has had the experience of long tours prior to the pandemic, Lim said the extension of an assignment does not affect him as much, thanks to the robust BGC system that follows the best practices around the world, which Lim added “is an interesting situation in that we know the risks, therefore we try to manage them as best as we can. Different countries have different requirements in this pandemic, so we focus on maintaining the highest standards, even if certain aspects are not mandated. Ultimately, the objective is to keep our crew from getting infected.”

Lim shared that he tries to keep his mind occupied during long tours, which he said is made easy by BGC’s effort to improve the bandwidth on its vessels, allowing the crew to stay connected to home (virtually), with better quality video calls with families and friends.

Lim also said the first wave was particularly challenging for both local and foreign senior officers, as the travel restrictions caused difficulties in finding relievers to allow those onboard to return back to their home country, while the second wave had affected mainly junior officers and crew members.

“People are feeling a bit worn out from all the extra precautions they have to observe. But it has fast become a norm as we have been doing it for almost two years,” he added.

Having recently completed a six-and-a-half-month tour due to strict requirements from a number of countries, as well as the lack of a double-vaccination status, he said it was quite a challenge to book a flight home.

Lim said the challenges as a seafarer are both physical and mental, as the job itself is intensive; having to do it day in, day out, over a long period can wear a person down. This was especially true during the second wave when seafarers’ concern for the safety of their families back home resurfaced.

“I am the head of a department. So, it was quite draining to try and calm my team down when I was worried about the state of my family at the same time,” said Lim. “But you also have a job to do. If no one carried out the assigned tasks, nothing would move.”

To help each other out onboard a ship, Lim said they have adopted an ad-hoc system of having open conversations over coffee and keep each other’s morale up.

Yap added that the seafarers try to keep things fun, especially during long tours, such as organising a movie night every Saturday and holding a table tennis tournament.

“The crew likes to play video games,” he said. “On my last tour, I brought with me a PlayStation 5 to keep them entertained. The priority is to take care of the welfare of my team by keeping their minds occupied.”

With the Early Endemic Phase being implemented recently, they are optimistic about the future, not least a shorter quarantine period for the seafarers prior to onsigning, and less restrictions for technicians going onboard the vessel to carry out periodic maintenance works.

Yap is heading back on tour soon, to which he hoped “the travel restrictions would have eased by next year, so I could be back home in three to four months. I want to avoid long tours as they are so taxing on the body and mind”.

Lim noted that while Brunei Darussalam is currently on the Endemic Phase, most countries around the world are still struggling with COVID-19 outbreaks, thus it is vital to keep up with the SOPs and remain vigilant in our day-to-day operations both onshore and on the vessel.

Teo said, “To me, COVID-19 is going to remain a part of life for the next few years. We have to adapt to the new norm. So let’s play our part and follow the guidelines set up by our government, the World Health Organization and the company – to keep us safe and allow us to see our loved ones again.”

Lim added, “My advice is to accept that this crisis is affecting everyone. It’s not a game of misery poker where we compare life’s difficulties. We need to have more empathy for one another and help each other out in these tough times – that will be here for a while.”

Yap echoed the sentiment: “Stay strong, stay safe and follow the SOPs provided by the government and believe that our company is doing its best in these trying times.”