How One Seafarer Made it Home While Others Are Still Stranded

Erin X. Wong
Labor New York
Published in
7 min readOct 14, 2021
Adam Belson looks out over the East River near his apartment in midtown Manhattan. September 30, 2021 (Photo: Erin X. Wong)

On the worst of 191 days at sea, Adam Belson stared out at the Port of Haifa, near Tel Aviv, with a 50–50 chance of going ashore. He smoked Marlboro Reds on the deck.

“I remember staring out on the terminal exit, just looking for a bus to pop over the horizon. And just waiting. Waiting and waiting and waiting.”

For over six months, Belson served as an entry-level engineer on the Maersk Durban, a 200-meter container ship that shuttles U.S. government and commercial cargo between ports in Turkey and Egypt. He worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week, manning the generators, air compressors, and other equipment in the engine room.

This round-the-clock schedule is typical. Belson, as a member of the American merchant marine, works several months on, then several months off. In November 2019, he was supposed to ship out for four months, until the pandemic closed ports, airports and borders.

Almost two years since COVID-19 spread overseas, thousands of mariners remain stuck on commercial ships — past the end of their contracts but facing a daunting set of restrictions blocking them from coming home. Some nationalities have it harder than others: When the Delta variant surged in India, Singapore and other ports began barring Indian crew members, who comprise 15 percent of the global workforce.

As of October 2021, the nonprofit Global Maritime Forum reported 7.9 percent of their sample size stayed on with expired contracts. Although down from last year’s peak, the International Maritime Organization, a United Nations agency, estimated 250,000 mariners were still delayed as of July. The maximum contract period allowed under the amended Maritime Labor Convention is one year. In the pandemic, however, some mariners reported working up to a year and a half.

Seafarers navigate and operate vessels that carry up to 90 percent of global trade. Their inability to complete routine crew changes — simultaneously stranding seafarers abroad or at home, unable to work — exemplifies the disruptions the pandemic has riddled across supply chains. While a record number of ships stall outside the Port of Los Angeles/Long Beach, every one of those ships is run by some 20 personnel, trapped in their own backlog of labor.

The Maersk Durban at port in Mersin, Turkey, in early 2020, when the seafarers could still take shore leave. (Photo: Adam Belson)

Belson is lucky. He still made $20,000 to $24,000 a month, depending on overtime, even with the extended stay. He’s a member of the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association (MEBA), a union that represents several thousand American seafarers. Their offices in Washington, D.C., and the country’s major ports advocate on their behalf, negotiating terms and cases with companies.

Back in that spring of 2020, Belson and others aboard the Maersk Durban watched ports close ominously.

“It was essentially a prison sentence,” says Jason Callahan, the Atlantic Coast vice president of the MEBA. He began to work with his team, contacting elected officials representing the crew. He was talking with other unions, companies and federal agencies, all of whom were reacting to the new complications.

Not all unions offer this level of representation. A member of the American Maritime Officers, who asked not to be named because he aims to go back to non-union work, says he felt that his union worked primarily for the company. If the company said a crew-change at a nearby port was too expensive or logistically challenging, the only way a seafarer could get home was in the case of a medical or family emergency, or to quit.

“There isn’t really a way to get home out here,” he wrote Labor New York in September. “There is no way to leave the vessel except walking off in a port of call.” But with no visa, currency, or local point of contact, a lone seafarer could be stranded.

A.P. Moller-Maersk, the global parent of the U.S.-based Maersk Line Ltd., stated in their 2020 annual report that its “single biggest challenge has been to relieve our seafarers after their tour has ended.” The company stated that at its peak, over 2,500 out of 6,000 of their seafarers were called to stay on beyond their contracts.

The Maersk Durban in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. (Photo: Devin McNeil)

Belson is used to muscling through hard times, physically and mentally. From the age of 13, he stepped up to help his father shower, shave, and dress as he experienced early-onset Alzheimer’s.

“If it wasn’t for him, I would not have been able to keep my husband home for as long as I did,” said Belson’s mother, Leslie Peterson. “So I know when Adam is telling me he’s getting ragged around the edges.… That means he’s getting super ragged around the edges, because he never once complained to me about having to help out with his dad.”

By several measures, the mental health of seafarers has plummeted in the pandemic. Mental Health Support Solutions (MHSS), which runs a 24/7 support line for seafarers, reported a 60 percent rise in interactions in the second quarter of 2021. No centralized database exists to track seafarers who take their own lives, but Lloyd’s List and GCaptain have reported an increase in anecdotal reports of suicides.

By the fifth month, Belson felt the fatigue. He prides himself on preventative maintenance, against fuel leaks, saltwater leaks, and fires. The engine room runs hot, with continuous vibrations from the sea. “A lot can go wrong very, very quickly,” he says. “Can’t call the fire department in the middle of the Atlantic.”

But the fatigue made it hard to stay proactive. “Jobs just end up taking longer. You start getting a little absent-minded sometimes,” Belson recalls.

The chief engineer, Keith Turcotte, who boarded in February, tried his best to keep up morale. He dipped into the ship’s funds and his own, even trading a pontoon boat with Turkish vendors, to set up a gym on board, with a full set of weights, mirrors, and mats. He had the engineers weld a smoker from a retired hot-water tank, and the crew bonded over briskets and ribs.

“The only thing I could do was to keep the guys busy,” Turcotte said, “Keep them upbeat, you know. Keep them informed.” A member of Turcotte’s team would reach 270 days at sea by the end of the trip; another would reach 240.

Keith Turcotte, lower left; Adam Belson, upper left; and members of the Maersk Durban crew. (Photo: Courtesy of Keith Turcotte)

The Durban continued to transport cargo, now with protective measures between the crew and the local longshoremen. They still worked long hours in the engine room, with heavy, rotating machinery. “If their mind is thinking about something that’s going on at home, like a divorce or a sick child or a family member that’s passed away,” Turcotte says, “I can’t task them with that stuff… because they’re gonna hurt themselves.”

At home in Teaneck, N.J., Leslie Peterson watched the Durban move between ports. When they were at sea, she figured, they were safe. If anyone had COVID-19, they wouldn’t have been cleared to sail.

But when she was able to call Adam, she knew the worst part was the anxiety. “He said, ‘If I knew I’d be getting off in three more months or six more months, at least that would be a date to work towards, to keep in mind,’” she said. “It was a sinking feeling.”

After weeks of back and forth, Callahan joined a call that supported the Maersk Durban heading to Israel. In June 2020, the country’s borders remained closed to all foreigners, including U.S. citizens. But according to Callahan, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree reached out through the State Department, leveraging the countries’ friendly relations.

Days later, the Durban berthed outside Haifa for 12 hours, while Belson prepared the papers for a replacement crew he only half-believed would show up. Then the bus appeared over the horizon, filled with a new group of mariners.

“I probably had this big stupid grin on my face,” says Belson. The crew change was quick, all 22 members and two cadets. They rode the chartered bus to Tel Aviv, flew to Frankfurt, and from there, dispersed to their various homes across the U.S. Belson arrived to an empty Newark Airport, made it home, and set out to buy a beer.

Since he returned in June 2020, dozens of countries have designated seafarers as “key workers,” which the International Maritime Organization hopes will allow for free transit through other countries as they repatriate. But the declaration is no guarantee of easy passage.

“There wasn’t always a whole lot of patience,” Belson says. “But we still have a job to do. We got to do it.”

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Erin X. Wong
Labor New York
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Stabile Investigative Fellow at Columbia Journalism School