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“Fourth month on board and I’m still here,” female Nigerian seafarer shares experience

Female Nigerian seafarer, Uchechi Okoronkwo, a 3rd engineer on board the vessel Jascon 55, owned by West African Ventures, got on the ship on 6th February, 2020 with expectations of being at work for the next two months and returning ashore for another one month. But, the COVID-19 pandemic changed her story.

“I came on board the vessel since 6th February, 2020, with the hope of working for the next two months and going back ashore for another one month. But, here I am for over four months running,” she said.

Today,  Miss Okoronkwo is among an estimated 150,000 seafarers globally , who are waiting to go back home to their loved ones, having been on board vessels as crew changeovers have been impossible following travel restrictions occasioned by the global lockdown.

The seafarers’ experiences of the lockdown may be similar, having to deal with new guidelines on board to ensure they stay safe. But the female seafarers have more to share.

Stuck on board vessels this long period , the female seafarers have had to deal with the challenge of exhausting initial supply of sanitary towels and other complementary needs as “no more supplies could get to us,” she said.

Social distancing on a vessel is sure difficult as crew work in close-nit units; a key job demand.

Miss Okoronkwo who studied marine engineering at the Maritime Academy of Nigeria, Oron, was the overall HND Valedictorian of the 2016 class. She obtained her OOW Licence in 2016 and currently working on obtaining her Second Engineer Licence.

She shares her experience of having to ensure safety rules are observed and how safety drills just have to be done.

 The Interview:

What has been your experience as a female seafarer at sea during this COVID-19  lockdown?

It has been difficult I must say. I boarded this vessel on the 6th of February and we were making preparations to sail to a particular field to undertake a job.  A week before the vessel was meant to set sail, the Federal Government decided to put the lockdown in place, so it affected our schedule.

We had spent about three weeks to a month trying to get everything set to get back to the job. Then, the lockdown happened. It affected a lot of our spares, which are very important to enable us carryout our duties effectively and also ensure that the vessel is in a safe condition.

There were logistics issues. We needed people to go on the job with us, specialists who were to do that certain jobs. But, people could not come in because, some of them were coming from various countries, even outside Africa. So, they couldn’t come. We were just stuck. We couldn’t finish a lot of things and the vessel could not go to carry out what she was meant to do.

Therefore, it translates to the fact that the company itself was not gaining money for this ship. Imagine that we had spent such long time, almost three weeks, trying to get everything together, only for it to not go as planned.

As a seafarer, my contract was just two months. I was supposed to do two months on, one month off. So, I was supposed to go home on the 6th of April. Of course, that was not possible because, this is 13th of June and I am still here. I have overstayed the contract already.

Quite frankly, I am mentally tired, physically exhausted and emotionally drained…. It’s not been easy.

The mental health of seafarers who are long overdue has been a very disturbing issue. I heard of a case where a seafarer committed suicide.

I have to be mentally alert to do my job effectively and it’s not so easy.

Secondly, I ran out of basic toiletries. I didn’t have sanitary pads, creams, deodorant etc. I stocked for 3 months (because I always envisage I might overstay by a month), I never thought it would get to this.

Finally, I don’t have children of my own, but I have a family that I left at home. I miss them so much. I get calls of issues at home that I can’t be there to solve and it’s affecting me. I can’t imagine what other female sailors with kids are facing. My South African friend has been stuck at sea for 4 months now. She has two kids. It’s pretty difficult.

Where was your vessel when the lockdown was pronounced?

My vessel was in Onne, Rivers State, but we were scheduled to go back to sea.

How have you been carrying out your duties?

The company is trying, but it has not been easy. We still received some spares to do our job, which is good. I have to motivate myself to do the job. It’s being difficult but we’ve mapped out a plan that works just fine. We had to re-arrange our duty time, learned to carry out certain jobs at a more relaxed rate- to avoid burn out. Engage more people in doing difficult jobs, and generally work as a team to ensure all goes well. For every job, we do a review; we carry out a toolbox meeting/task risk assessment, ensure to get Permits to work( when required), and follow all that has been discussed. Finally, we learn to relax more as this helps to soothe the agitation caused from the long contract/voyage.

Coping with social distancing?

So, working on a ship is like one family. And social distancing on board in reality is very difficult because, how am I going to lift a pump that needs to be changed? Some jobs are urgent and it is not something I need to wait for. Maybe it is for one of my important systems like refrigeration system. If it is not fixed, it means my food would get bad. And if food gets bad, we would starve. So, we need to work together and you are wearing the mask. It is quite uncomfortable when you are where it is hot – the Engine Room is very hot and you are feeling very uncomfortable, but you are still wearing the face mask.

Then, when handling certain jobs, you might need to use tools e.g spanners, and you need to maybe use a chain block, so you need someone to help with that. Of course, both of you are wearing protective gloves, but one might need to touch something without a glove, to inspect or feel something. And that might have already been compromised by someone else.   This makes social distancing on board, especially when you are in your workspace, very difficult. In addition, I have about 68 people on board. And we have a general mess room. For instance, dinner time is 5pm. Of course, everybody won’t go to eat at the same time, so we had to ensure that not more than 10 people can be in the mess-room at the same time. I had to draw up new eating time. We all did. Some go by 5pm, others 15 minutes later and so on.

Now, we carry out drills, for example; fire drills. It is to know what to do in the event of a fire outbreak on board. Another drill is the Man overboard drill. When a crew-member/passenger falls into the water; what do you do? Security drill- If there is a pirate attack what do you do?  We do drills to know when we are faced with these situations. The seafarer is trained on all of these and is expected to know what to do in these cases, everybody has their duties. You need to carry out your duties and the importance of the drills is to see how effective our training system is, evaluate our response, and how fast the response is because that is one of the most important aspects of carrying out a drill. All these are important.  So, in the cases of a real scenario, you know what to do.

We didn’t stop the drills. Taking into account social distancing, we certainly needed to make adjustments. When we have our safety drills, for instance the Security drill, initially, we all had to gather in the safe haven, ‘All of Us’. In trying to prevent Covid19, you find out that you can’t ask 68 people to muster in the safe haven because this is against the social distancing rules. You now have to limit the number of people that can muster meaning not everybody is involved in the drill and that’s wrong because this translates to contravening some basic safety rules that are laid out in the industry. You can’t have the drills like you used to, the way the drills need to be mapped out. On a fire drill, I probably need to help the fireman wear his suit but because of social distancing and I have to be careful and it defeats the whole aim of team work.

What has changed?

Everything has changed. We can’t work the way we used to. We can’t even carry our drills like we used to. Onboard, you are advised to use the hand rails always to avoid a trip and fall when the vessel rolls. In the Covid-19 era you are scared to touch any surface including the hand rail that was initially meant to be a safety measure.

Your normal time onboard is disrupted, you can’t go home on time and your relievers can’t come to work without self-isolation for a minimum of two weeks.

Virtually everything has changed.

Were there times when you felt tired of the situation? And how did you cope?

Of course! You know, this is not a popular profession for women. So, any women coming into this profession, I always say if you come in for money you will get frustrated when you face real situations. But, when you come into this job because this is something you want to do, you fell in love with it and have a passion for it, even when it frustrates you, you will find a way around it.

Right now, I am the only female on board. I am truly tired of the situation and there are certain things I want to talk about that I can’t do with the male crew. However, they have been very supportive and I really have to give thumbs up to my crew for how they have been very professional.

I find time to relax and I do a lot of meditation. Finally, I am grateful that there has been no sexual harassment during this period. If that was an issue, this would have been even more miserable. I haven’t had issues where someone was making sexual passes or sexual jokes, all through this period and I am excited.

What about when you felt like spending free periods discussing with a friend?

Of course, I did because, everybody is a seaman. There are no seawomen. So, I learnt to make out time to have meaningful and insightful conversations with few of my crew. I remember discussing an issue that I felt was quite embarrassing with one of my crew members. We have been on board and I only projected that I was going to be on board for two months and I bought sanitary pads to last me for the period. And then COVID-19 lockdown and you are not allowed to disembark, and I am not used to other materials, like tissue paper. He told me that he heard that an office representative was coming onboard soon so we can make request for him to get me the sanitary towels as well as other toiletries. We did contact the Office agent and I did not feel ashamed. I just asked for help to get some sanitary towels.  At that point I had to actually think about other women at sea, with no hope at all. Most are shy

to talk about this things and I understand. They would have no choice but to use clean rags and tissue paper and we both know that it is not hygienic.

With this experience, post covid-19, what would you advise women do in crisis situation?

First of all, just buy enough sanitary towels. Ensure you get twice the quantity you may need for your stay because, at any point in time, something can happen that you may not be able to explain or think can happen.

Secondly, I think basically you should stock up on all your toiletries. Some things are weird and difficult to get and it is very difficult for you as a women to be without sanitary consumables to use.  Even, be it your cream, your soap, because as women we are actually sensitive to how we smell and look.

Teach yourself some skills to help you manage yourself better during these difficult situations. I had to learn to braid my hair myself and just cover it with a face cap. The fact that you are a lady and you are stuck in a difficult situation, you can still look and feel the way you want. You don’t have to look unkempt.

You know as women, if we don’t look and feel good about ourselves, it can affect our output.

In addition, onboard, you are one family, and it is okay sometimes to have a friendly chat with your fellow crew. Learn not to say certain things that are too sensitive, but you can talk to fellow seafarers because they are your family and the people that would help you out.

However, you also need to know how to comport yourself, know how to talk to everybody; men or women.

Respect yourself enough because, truth is that you must avoid placing yourself in a situation where people begin to become negative in their approach toward you.

Finally, I cannot stress this enough; learn to unwind! Do something you like. It could be singing, dancing, exercise, even cooking (you can speak with the chef). Stress management is important for one’s health.

How soon are you hoping to go back home?

Hopefully, by the end of the month.

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