“Some countries even refused to take home their own nationals”

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Agnes Olsson, chief mate on an international cruise ship, was stuck on board for six months after pandemic broke out. “The worst thing during that time was the uncertainty,” she says.
“Most of the crew on board probably felt frustrated. Not knowing the future and constantly being given new information was difficult.”

Agnes Olsson signed on the international cruise ship where she normally works at the end of February. At the time everything was normal, but after only two weeks a no-sail order came from the American health authority, meaning a 30-day cruise stop for all ships to and from the USA.

“Cruises that had already started could be completed but we couldn’t take on any new passengers,” says Agnes Olsson. “When all the passengers had left the ship, we planned to stay anchored until the 30-day period was over, but it became much longer than that.”

Together with around 40 other cruise ships that normally sail to the US, they then made their way to the protected waters around the Bahama Bank where they waited for the all-clear to continue the cruise, but it never came. Instead they just heard more and more reports of closed borders and cancelled flights.

“In the beginning we continued work as usual, we didn’t think it would take so long, but after a while people wanted to go home. We saw how things were going around the world and people heard from home about their families who were in lock-down,” says Agnes Olsson.

Last to leave the ship
When it became clear that the ban on cruise ships would not be lifted in the short-term, the complicated job of getting crewmembers home was started. With all the airports closed, the only solution was to transport people on board other ships.

“For a couple of days there were several ships moored next to each other, dividing the crews according to their nationalities,” says Agnes Olsson. “Then we all sailed to different regions – some to South America, others to the Caribbean, some to Europe and so on.”

Having arrived there, though, the next problem was to get the crews ashore.

“Some countries refused to take in their own nationals on the sole ground that they were seafarers. They have been treated like a floating virus, despite the fact that ships are some of the safest places to be just because they are so isolated. In the end it became a political issue.”

Agnes Olsson was one of the last of her crew to be relieved. The ten weeks she should have been on board had increased to six months by then. If all goes according to plan, she will sign on again at the end of the year.

“Many jobs in hotels and restaurants have been removed for obvious reasons, but my job as chief mate is still open. The shipping company has managed to organise a functioning relief system, so I hope to be able to set off and relieve my colleague when the time comes.”

Linda Sundgren

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