The COVID Crew Change Crisis

Nic Gardner
A Sailor’s Life for Me
6 min readAug 9, 2020

A sailor on the deck of a ship. Photo by Igor Kardasov

“I don’t know how to tell you this… I am sorry but [your brother] passed away this morning... He is at peace now.”

I had to read the message several times before the meaning of the words sank in. Disbelief, anger, confusion, shock, betrayal and fear washed over me. It took a long time before I could process the implications.

There’s never a good time to receive the news that your brother has died. Whether you’re in the same hospital room or in the same country, there’s no way to escape the breaking wave of emotion. My brother was in Australia. I’m a crew member on a ship that’s quarantined in the Canary Islands.

I’m now part of the growing group of seafarers whose family members have died ashore during the pandemic. Just on my ship, there are three of us; a fourth recently got back to the UK in time to watch his father die. Of the three of us still on board, I’m the lucky one. In theory, if I could get a flight, I could travel to Australia. I wouldn’t be out of quarantine in time for the funeral, and my company would have trouble getting anyone to replace me, but I could do it.

Another crew member’s mother died several weeks ago. He’s still here, and he won’t be going anywhere for the foreseeable future. Like a quarter of our crew, he’s stranded on board. Some crew can’t get a visa to travel from the ship to the airport to fly to their home country. Some aren’t allowed back into their home country because the borders are closed. For some, the only flights home go through countries that don’t allow transit without a visa — and they can’t get a visa. Most of our crew haven’t been ashore or had direct contact with outsiders since the 11th of March.

One of our crew is pregnant; she’s due within days. She’s been trying to get home for months, but she’s still stuck on board. I’m grateful that we’re one of the few lucky ships: we have a doctor on board. Most ships don’t. On any of my previous ships, I’d be responsible for working out how to deliver and care for a newborn and dealing with any complications. Like most officers in the merchant navy, I’ve had five days of medical training.

Seafarers keep international trade moving. When you go to the supermarket to buy some tasty treats to help you feel better during lockdown, you have seafarers to thank…

Nic Gardner
A Sailor’s Life for Me

Full-time sailor, full-time learner, part-time writer with a lot to say. I try to see all sides, but I'm human, so I have a long way to go.