As the Russians began their invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, there were unintended side effects. It suddenly became dangerous for merchant ships in ports along the Ukrainian coast to leave. Many of these ships had just taken on cargo that had to be delivered. The crews didn’t want to be stuck in a port that was suddenly in a war zone. The companies that owned and operated those ships were also eager to get the ships and crews and cargoes out of the area. Companies that provide insurance for merchant ships were also eager to see the ship quickly and safely out of the area.
When the war began, nearly a hundred ships and over 2,000 officers and crew on those ships were stuck in Black Sea ports. A year later most of the crews and about a third of the ships have left the ports and the Black Sea. There are still 61 ships and 331 crewmen stuck in ports. So many ships are still stuck because the port managers or the companies who own the ships find it too risky to leave for the uncertain safety and troubled waters of the Black Sea. The crews could be evacuated by land or air and those still on the ships are usually getting bonus pay to stay there and maintain the ship as well as keeping in touch with the owners about the status of these major assets. In some cases, it is possible to send in replacements for stay-behind crewmen who want to finally leave.
Another curiosity is that many of the officers and crew on these ships are Russian or Ukrainian. This is one of the generally unrecognized side effects of the dramatic changes in Eastern Europe in around 1990. Since the end of the Cold War and Soviet Union in 1991 there has been a lot of unemployment in Russia, and becoming a crew member on a commercial ship paid well. With the Soviet Union gone, Russians were free to travel or work outside Russia. Many ended up as officers or sailors on merchant marine vessels flying a flag of convenience.
For Russian mariners, all was well for three decades until covid19 shutdowns came along in 2020. Then the Ukraine War followed with official Russian government restrictions on anyone, including Russian merchant marine mariners, leaving Russia, even on Russian ships with cargo delivery deadlines to meet. This stranded Russian mariners in Russia, where they were largely, but not entirely, exempted from the military mobilization programs. To make the situation more confusing, some mobilization officials would issue mariners exit permits while others would not, or didn’t know how to and were not interested in learning how to do it for a small number of mariners in their area of responsibility. Some mariners found that they could leave the country by showing their mariner ID and a shipping company letter of employment. One hand of the Russian government wanted all these Russian mariners back on the job, because they earned foreign currency, and another hand of the Russian government insisted they stay because that was, well, Russian. Eventually they were all allowed to sail, though some were “mobilized” and sent to fight in the Ukraine anyway.
While that money was difficult to get back to families in Russia, it was not impossible. Then there were the mariners who did get military mobilization notices. Most of these were willing to return to Russia and serve in the military. Then there were those who did not want to get mobilized into the military and would leave their ship if it were headed for Russian port. Many mariners have served in the military, either as conscripts or officers and some served in the Russian navy or coast guard. Until recently, Russian mariners could be taken from their ships at Russian ports and not allowed to return to sea. The procedure has been modified but there is still the risk of being removed from your ship if your name is on some list of mariners needed for some other work in Russia.
Before 2022, many merchant ship mariners were laid off because of covid19. This virus led to international population movement restrictions. That caused some unexpected problems for sea transportation. At the start of the covid19 lockdowns in early 2020, there were 1.9 million qualified mariners and officers to operate the 75,000 ships of the international merchant fleet. That’s only 25 personnel, most of them men, per ship. The job pays well and even the largest ships rely on automated equipment to keep crew sizes small. This automation and small crew size had been around for decades as the merchant fleet grew larger and ships spent more time at sea.
Even before covid19 there was a shortage of qualified crew, especially officers. Typically, officers are 15-20 percent of the crew and skilled specialists another 15-20 percent. Most crew come from less affluent countries in South and East Asia as well as Africa and South America. For those sailors the pay and living conditions are very good but the time spent away from family is a major minus. This became catastrophic during covid19 because many ports would not allow a ship to enter unless the crew was certified free of covid19. This meant shipping companies could not replace the crews as often as usual and as many as 200,000 mariners and officers were literally stuck on their ships for months longer than usual. This made the officer shortage worse. Before covid19 there were about five percent fewer officers than needed. By 2021 this grew to nearly 20 percent because of all the problems involved with seemingly endless voyages caused by covid19 lockdowns and difficulty in getting the crews vaccinated. This led to calls for merchant sailors to get priority in receiving the vaccines. Most of the available vaccines required two doses, taken three to four weeks apart. This made it more difficult to get sailors vaccinated.
While there was some decline in work for merchant ships during the 18 months of lockdowns, once the lockdowns began to be lifted the demand for seaborne shipping rapidly grew and shortage of sailors and officers was one reason why there was a shortage of ships back in service for nearly a year. Operating these big ships with smaller crews just makes the job even more unattractive, while also causing potential problems with the insurance companies that compensate owners for damaged or lost ships because of the many risks encountered.
Raising wages is not as effective a solution as programs to recruit and train additional mariners and officers. There are also problems in some countries with dishonest brokers who match mariners with ships. In some countries shipping companies going bankrupt or committing fraud can abandon crews overseas.
While the hundreds of shipping companies can justify more money spent on wages and recruiting, a training program requires joint efforts to work, at least with those countries that supply the most crew personnel. This is one of those problems that cannot be ignored because the world economy depends on maritime transport. Most likely some nations that already supply most of the mariners and officers, like the Philippines and India, will seize the opportunity to train more mariners and officers to make life more bearable for these seagoing specialists and encourage more of them to stay in the job, at least part-time. In Russia, the economic situation is grim and likely to continue for years after the war ends. As a result, getting a job on a merchant ship will remain an attractive option.