British port authorities have boarded six cruise ships anchored near London and Bristol amid “serious concerns” over the welfare of almost 1,500 crew stranded because of the coronavirus pandemic.
One of the vessels, the Astoria, has been temporarily detained following reports to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) that it was planning to leave the country without repatriation secured for the crew.
Katy Ware, the director of maritime safety and standards and the UK’s permanent representative to the International Maritime Organization, said: “We will always take reports around crew welfare seriously and we have used our powers as the port state control authority to carry out this detention so that we can investigate more fully.”
Hundreds of crew members have been stranded in Tilbury Docks in the Thames estuary for months since cruises to Iceland and elsewhere were cancelled as the Covid-19 crisis deepened.
There have been unverified reports of hunger strikes, with Indian crew members making a direct appeal to India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, to intervene. One person has died of a heart attack, the ships’ owners said.
The All India Seafarer and General Workers Union wrote to the Indian foreign office three days ago saying that “in the coronavirus outbreak our Indian citizens [are] stuck in foreign waters from past 90 days and need help”.
The letter requesting urgent repatriation of 164 Astoria crew members said many of the crew had begun a hunger strike onboard. It said they had also staged a peaceful protest on the ship asking the Indian government and state officials to help.
The ships’ owner, Cruise and Maritime Voyages, said this week that 50 out of 262 crew members on the Astoria had “commenced a strike, including no longer performing routine maintenance work onboard”.
“Our crew have endured a prolonged period quarantined on board our ships during lockdown and are understandably anxious and distressed” with many unable to fly home due to global travel restrictions, said Christian Verhounig, CMV’s chief executive. He said the “vast majority of European crew had been repatriated” and the group was in “high level talks with Indian and other international governments” to try to resolve the repatriation problem. Some crew would travel back to Myanmar this Sunday, he added.
The company said 1,449 crew were onboard the six ships. In reply to allegations that some crew had gone on hunger strike, it said that all members of staff were eating. Customs restrictions mean the crews cannot get supplies of alcohol or cigarettes.
The company is in talks with potential lenders and investors as it scrambles to secure funding to see it through the coronavirus pandemic.
Shipping logs show the Astoria left Mexico in mid-February, arriving in Poole, Dorset, on 14 March just as Europe went in lockdown. It arrived in Tilbury docks a day later, with crew stuck there since.
The company said it had been due to set sail from Poole on an Iceland cruise that was cancelled because of the crisis. It also confirmed that one member of staff on another of its other ships, the Vasco da Gama, had died of natural causes.
“Cruise and Maritime Voyages reports that in the early hours of this morning a crew member onboard the Vasco da Gama at London Tilbury passed away following a heart attack,” it said in a statement earlier this week.
The MCA said it had detained the Astoria, which sails under a Madeira flag of convenience, on Thursday with inspections aimed at investigating reports of welfare concerns on all six ships under way from Friday morning.
“The detention is a preventative measure in line with UK regulations, in order that a full inspection of the ship related to the maritime labour convention can be carried out before its intended departure. It cannot leave the port until the inspection is completed,” it said.
“Five other ships in the same company – Global Cruise Lines Ltd – four others based at Tilbury and one at Bristol, are also being inspected. Acting as the port state control authority for the UK, the MCA has taken this action following a number of serious concerns which were raised about the welfare of the crew.”
The seafarers’ organisation the International Transport Workers’ Federation said it was “aware of the situation and was monitoring it”. If necessary it would intervene to safeguard the crew, it said.
The Astor, one of the other ships in Tilbury, left Réunion in the Indian Ocean on 14 March, travelling to South Africa, Portugal and Germany before arriving in Tilbury on 27 May.
The Columbus has been anchored in Tilbury since April after a journey from Sri Lanka, while the Magellan arrived in Tilbury on 8 April from Iceland.
The Vasco da Gama has been docked in Tilbury since 1 May having arrived from Australia, while the ship in Avonmouth in Bristol has been there since 22 March having sailed from Jordan. Sources said one of the problems was that the world spotlight had shone on passengers at the peak of the pandemic but the crews “were just as affected and are being left behind”.