port of los angeles and long beach

FILE PHOTO: Container ships and oil tankers wait outside the Port of Long Beach-Port of Los Angeles complex. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Sailors Venture on Land at Packed California Port as Limits Ease

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November 19, 2021

By Augusta Saraiva (Bloomberg) —

The logjam of ships waiting for a turn to unload their cargo at the U.S.’s busiest container port has left thousands of crew members stuck on board for weeks longer than they’d expected.

Some of those sailors are finding relief in a small concrete house near the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, where the International Seafarers Center has offered workers a break from their stints at sea for almost four decades. The center is slowing getting busier again as pandemic-era restrictions begin easing. Crew members are able to take advantage of a long-standing international rule allowing foreign sailors temporary shore leave to relax and run errands for hours at a time or longer. 

In a drive to create “a home away from home,” the organization offers temporary housing and food, and takes crew members on shopping trips to local grocery stores and retailers or to attend a church service, said manager Pat Pettit, a 35-year veteran at the center. The facility itself is stocked with piles of puzzles, hundreds of books, and has snooker and foosball tables, as well as massage chairs and bunk beds.

The non-profit has also helped offer Covid-19 vaccinations to crew members. This week, the number of sailors on stops to the twin ports of L.A. and Long Beach who had received the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine since May surpassed 9,000, with vaccines being administrated both on board ships and to crew members who have come ashore for short breaks.

As of September, only one in four of the world’s 1.6 million seafarers was fully vaccinated, and a majority was unlikely to get shots through national programs until next year, according to an estimate by the International Chamber of Shipping. On Wednesday, its secretary-general, Guy Platten, urged ports everywhere to follow the example of American hubs and inoculate sailors of every nationality to “avoid delays when workers reach other countries.”

But the virus itself isn’t the only pandemic-related challenge for seafarers. Travel restrictions and supply-chain issues have trapped hundreds of thousands of sailors at sea for months after their contracts expired, with some companies refusing to pay the wages. Once these sailors finally reach the port docks, many of them haven’t been allowed to exit the ships, according to the International Labor Organization.

The long journeys and tough conditions can take a toll on the mental health of crew members. Before the pandemic, a quarter of seafarers suffered from depression, over four times more than the general population, a 2018 study commissioned by the International Transport Workers Federation found. During the height of the Covid-19 crisis, calls to helplines tripled, according to the International Seafarers‘ Welfare and Assistance Network.

Filipino-American seafarer Cyrus Balena said the pandemic has made his job even harder. The 40-year-old began sailing in 2004 because it was decent-paying work. Balena has been living at the seafarer center since his last trip ended in September while he looks for his next contract, allowing him to save money and better support his three children.

“Working in the ships is not that easy,” said Balena, who missed the birth of his youngest child because he was at sea. “If your family is receiving just one text a day it means a lot.”

Pettit said that seafarers often first ask for the Wi-fi password or for a phone to call their families. More than once, crew members have watched videos of their newborn child or the funeral of a loved one on the center’s computers. Sailors also appreciate just walking around on land to “get rid of those sea legs,” Pettit said.

Despite recent stepped-up efforts to ease the backlog of ships, the average wait time for vessels has increased to 18.4 days, more than double the level from two months ago, according to L.A.’s Wabtec Port Optimizer. This means sailors — who can be at sea for many weeks or months — have to wait even longer to get on land.

These sailors are “phantoms in steel island,” said Chairman Guy Fox. Despite being a linchpin of world trade, the invisible work of ships’ crew members often goes unacknowledged, he added.

“It reminds me of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,’ which is ‘water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink,’” Fox said. “When the seafarers see the shores and they’re aboard these vessels, they are thinking, ‘land, land everywhere, but not a path to walk.’”

© 2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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