Tug shortage hits crew change at outer anchorage of Cochin Port

A shortage of tugs has hit crew change operations at the outer anchorage of Cochin Port Trust, forcing ship managers to call for a round-the-clock staff swap on ships.

The outer anchorage of Cochin Port Trust has become a favourite of ship owners and ship managers to divert cargo-laden ships from its normal route just to drop off crew working beyond their original contract tenure and to replace them with new crew to overcome a corona virus-induced crew change crisis that has roiled the global shipping industry.

Ships are deviating to Cochin because the port trust does not collect any charges for crew change at its outer anchorage. “It is a give and take,” said an executive with a ship management company.

“We are ready to follow all the rules but allow us 24-hour crew change because there are only three tugs run by Cochin Port Trust and with the three tugs, it has become difficult to manage,” he said.

Tugs are vital to crew change at outer anchorage. The tugs are hired by the ship agents to ferry joiners to the ship and bring back those who have signed off from the ship.

The standard operating procedures (SOP) framed by the Immigration Department at Cochin Port Trust allows crew change only during daytime. The crew change should be done using only port tugs or tugs registered with the port trust.

Cochin Port Trust runs three tugs but only two are made available for crew change.

“The limitation is that the port trust has got its own movement to carryout. They will first use the tugs for their own cargo loading and unloading operations and then only let out the tugs for crew change operations,” said the executive.

Cochin Port Trust has seen a spurt in demand for tugs after it allowed crew change at anchorage, attracting many ship owners and managers to carry out this exercise.

Cochin Port Trust charges $785 per hour for letting out a tug. With GST, the rate comes to about $900 per hour. A tug typically takes about five hours to go to a ship and return.

With crew change not allowed during night and only two tugs available for the job, ships have to wait for as much as 48 hours to complete the task before sailing off. The waiting time has financial implication for the ship owner.

Cochin has become a preferred destination for crew change at outer anchorage because it does not levy any charges. Whereas, other ports levy charges, and ship owners also require permission from the Customs Department to take the vessel out. At Cochin outer anchorage, ships don’t require port clearance to sail out if it is coming for crew change only.
Crew change SOP

But, the SOP framed by the Immigration Department at Cochin stipulates that the ship cannot sail off until its gives clearance to the signed off crew who are brought ashore.

“If you find something wrong with the crew, take action against them. But, why should the ship be made to wait for ten hours in outer anchorage after the crew change is completed,” the executive asked.

When a cargo laden ship deviates from its normal course to halt at a place for crew change, it is considered to be off-hired. The diversion to Cochin takes a day besides if the ship has to wait for 1.5 days waiting at anchorage after the crew change is over, it will lose hire/rental income for 2.5 days, which is a lot of money.

“To avoid the idling of vessels and the consequent loss of income, ships might as well go to some other port, pay port charges, carry out crew change and sail off,” he said.

Crew change at the outer anchorage of Cochin Port is a “blessing” otherwise, but with all this it is becoming a “burden”, he said.

“Once the off-signers leave the ship or reach ashore, the vessel should be allowed to leave,” he said adding that crew change should be allowed during night time also in Cochin as is prevalent in other ports and the Immigration Department should have uniform rules for clearances.
Currently affected

About 100 seafarers and six ships are affected by this issue and if a solution is not found, ship owners/managers will halt crew change at Cochin outer anchorage, he said.

Shipping industry sources said that it was an opportunity for Cochin Port Trust to hire more tugs from outside to expedite crew change so that more Indian seafarers can disembark from ships after spending extended time at sea and help those on shore to join ships on their next assignment.
Source: The Hindu Business Line

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