SMT Focus

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According to research by the World Economic Forum, as many as 1 in 6 of the 1 million crewmembers working on the world’s oceans today have been marooned due to governmental and airline restrictions stemming from the CoVid-19 pandemic. The plight of seafarers has been referred to as a “humanitarian and safety crisis” by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, and representatives from key seafarer and shipowner organizations – including The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) and the International Maritime Employers’ Council (IMEC) – have been working closely for months to try to alleviate this painful situation. Even Pope Francis brought attention to this issue in remarks he gave in late June, offering prayers for both seafarers with extended stays onboard and those stuck at home unable to work.

Like many in our industry, SMT Shipping has spent these past months working diligently to facilitate crew changes for our seafarers. SMT’s Crewing Department works closely with colleagues in SMT’s Travel Department to monitor the constantly changing information related to visa restrictions and flight availability. Some crew changes have been relatively routine, particularly for our vessels trading in Europe. However, most others have presented serious challenges, requiring complicated logistics solutions and combined efforts from professionals throughout our organization. Nowhere was this more evident than our recent crew changes in both Ghana and Guinea.

GUINEA FLEET         SMT operates a multi-vessel transshipment system that transports bauxite from a mining facility in Bel-Air, Guinea to large ocean-going vessels. All the ships in the transshipment system are manned by international crews impacted by the “no-fly” restrictions imposed by countries throughout the world. For many weeks, SMT’s Crewing and Travel Departments tried a multitude of crew change options, but each idea was rejected due to various national restrictions blocking our seafarers from flying into, flying out of, or transiting through any possible travel route. To deal with this, SMT created a “Crew Change Dream Team”, made from various SMT employees around the world. The task force includes Founder AJ Voorham, CEO Mark Voorham, SMT Crewing Manager Dariusz Stefaniak, Mr. Marc Smeets, logistics specialist for SMT’s Project Development Group, Captain Geerten Vreugdenhil, SMT’s aviation specialist, Mr. Slawomir Pyz, Director of Fleet Operations/Construction and Special Projects, Director of Operations Paul Eagles, and Offshore Installation Manager Jacek Kaszubski.


Onsigners get ready to board

After meeting together, the task force came to an important conclusion: if crew changes in Guinea or neighboring nations were impossible, SMT Shipping’s only option was to go to international waters. This was the start of a unique logistics adventure. On-signing crewmembers self-isolated for two weeks and were tested for Covid-19. They then boarded a chartered aircraft in Amsterdam, the Netherlands and flew to Praia, Cape Verde Islands. From there, the crew boarded chartered passenger vessel Kasey, and sailed over a day and a half to a designated mid-ocean rendezvous point. At the same time, SMT’s entire transshipment vessel group sailed from Guinea to meet up with MV Kasey. The crew change took place safely with MV Kasey alongside transshipper Conakry Pearl, and off-signers then experienced the journey in reverse while SMT’s Guinea fleet sailed back together in an impressive squadron.

According to Jacek Kaszubski, the tremendous effort was both critically needed and much appreciated: “Being at sea for an average of 6 months due to the CoVid-19 pandemic was hard. The intensity of the transshipment work made us all tired and ready for relief a long time before. Frustration grew as we experienced a lack of clear information from governmental officials -- not knowing if the much needed crew change would take place next month or in the next 6 months was mentally very difficult…In executing this operation, SMT Shipping has proven that our company truly cares about her crew. Word of this crew change has spread throughout our industry and has reflected very positively on SMT. Despite the stresses of the pandemic – where many seafarers are facing significant financial and mental hardship – we are proud to say that we are still here and we are doing well”!


MV Kacey alongside MVConakry Pearl

GHANA     SMT’s transshipment project located off the coast of Takoradi, Ghana also consists of international crews manning both SMT’s transshipper MV Gdansk and various support vessels. As with the situation in Guinea, traditional crew changes were completely blocked due to Ghana’s full border closure. Yet once again, the Crew Change Task Force, in cooperation with Ghana Operations Manager Captain Joseph Quaicoe, was ready for the challenge! The first hurdle was to secure a chartered flight and to acquire special permission to land in Accra despite Ghana’s national lockdown. With the help of our skilled agent partners Supermaritime Ghana Ltd., SMT was granted permission directly from Ghana’s Office of the President. The next issue became off-signing crewmembers transiting in Amsterdam as they waited for connecting flights home. As SMT’s aviation specialist Capt. Geerten Vreugdenhil explained, “we were dealing with multiple nationalities, holding both Schengen and non-Schengen passports or visas”, referring to the trade zone of 26 European countries that maintain a unified international border. Under normal circumstances, seafarers without Schengen area documentation would be blocked from transiting through Amsterdam. Yet this situation was resolved thanks to the help of Mr. Mark A van Elzakker, a leading official from the Head Immigration Liaison Office & Border Office at the Amsterdam Airport.


Guinea armada

Mr. Elzakker understood the unique situation faced by our crewmembers and wrote so-called “good to board” letters so that all seafarers could transit through Amsterdam Airport regardless of their documentation status. Geerten Vreugdenhil even oversaw the crewmembers’ final connecting flights, making repeated phone calls to airline check-in counters in both Manila and Jakarta: “Luckily, I was able to use my Indonesian language skills to speak with the responsible people in Jakarta, which was very fun to do”. Looking back, Captain Quaicoe sees this crew change as an example of SMT’s true value as an employer. “SMT Shipping is a highly professional and dedicated organization committed to seafarers’ safety and welfare. Such commitment was exhibited in this special case, ensuring the crew change took place regardless of its extra cost”. Capt. Vreugdenhil echoed the sentiment by stating, “When you are an SMT employee, you are not just a part of a company – you are part of a family”.