After Marella Discovery, more cruise liners to sail to India to drop off stranded crew

More cruise liners are expected to call at Indian ports in the next few days to disembark crew after Marella Discovery evacuated 145 Indian seafarers at Mumbai port with the help of a standard operating procedure (SOP) framed by the government for such a task following the outbreak of coronavirus.

Some 23,000 Indians employed on cruise ships were stranded across the globe after the coronavirus outbreak forced their owners to suspend services. Their repatriation to India has sparked much hue and cry, more so due to the suspension of international flights into the country, closing a key mode for their homecoming.

Cruise line owners had offered to evacuate the Indian crew on chartered flights as was done in the case of Indonesian and Philippines crew, but a government wary of easing the international travel restrictions to combat the pandemic refused to budge.

Cruise lines are thus forced to travel thousands of nautical miles just to bring back the stranded Indian crew to their country.

Like the Marella Discovery, a cruise liner owned by the United Kingdom-based travel company TUI Group, with a capacity to accommodate some 2,000 passengers. The liner left Thailand’s Laem Chabang port in mid-march and arrived in Mumbai on April 16 after a short halt in Kochi two days earlier for bunkering, carrying 145 seafarers hailing from Goa, Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Cochin, Hyderabad, Pune and a few other places.

But, since a government approval for a crew change at Indian ports and the SOP were not in place, the seafarers waited anxiously on the cruise ship, which also was desperate to get back to Europe.

The SOP was finally issued late evening on April 21 and the next day, J M Baxi & Co, the Mumbai based ship agency that was hired by the liner owner to facilitate the crew sign off, swung into action and made all the arrangements for the disembarkation with the support of Mumbai Port Trust Chairman Sanjay Bhatia, Traffic Manager Gautam Dey and other related authorities.

“The biggest challenge was to get the Covid-19 tests done on the 145 seafarers,” said Commander Nevil Malao (Retd), Indian Navy and Vice President, J M Baxi & Co.

When the cruise liner berthed at the offshore container terminal of Mumbai Port at 10:00 hours on April 23, technicians from a government-approved private lab were waiting at the pier to carry out the tests.

Only two persons boarded the ship – the pilot who helped the cruise line to berth and the Port Health Officer (PHO) who went for a full inspection fully covered from top to bottom.

“All the interactions with the cruise ship’s crew and Captain were over e-mail and across the gangway, maintaining social distance,” Malao said.

In just eight hours, the entire 145 seafarers were disembarked, and the cruise liner sailed out at 18:00 hours.

All the 145 sailors were found to be Covid negative when the test results came in 24 hours, which typically takes 48 hours. Following the test results, all the crew were taken in sanitised buses to six designated hotels for a short quarantine.

Of this, 30 crew residing in various parts of Mumbai were shifted to their homes, in the early morning on Sunday and they will undergo a 14-day home quarantine as stipulated by the Maharashtra government.

J M Baxi is now seeking permission from Mumbai Police to shift 60 seafarers to Goa in sanitised buses. Goa is a green zone, the 60 crew will be quarantined in a hotel in Goa for 14 days before they are allowed to go home, Malao said.

“The entire cost of the crew sign-off process was borne by the cruise liner owner TUI Group,” Malao said. “If a government-approved SOP was not in place, I don’t think they would want to come here and do everything at their own cost,” he said.

Seven Seas Voyager, a cruise liner owned by Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd, with 130 Indian crew on board, is currently at Abu Dhabi waiting for a green signal to sail to India to sign off the staff.

Ovation of the Seas, one of the largest luxury cruise ships in the world, owned by Royal Caribbean International, is likely to call at Cochin, Goa and Mumbai ports to disembark about 1,000 seafarers.

A cruise ship owned by Fred.Olsen Cruise Lines with 80 Indian crew is also expected in India to sign off the crew.

“Many cruise liners are keen to come here for disembarking their Indian crew. In no way are they looking to circumvent the regulations and procedures framed by the authorities,” Malao added.