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Shippers act to defend against virus disruption

Shipping companies in Bermuda have taken special measures in a bid to keep their crews and ships free of the Covid-19 virus, and to ensure that the pipeline of food and other essential goods to the island remains open.

Steps include extending the service time of crews to limit the number of people who work on the ships, cancelling shore leave, restricting access to the ships to only those who must go aboard, as well as vigorous sanitisation regimes, and practising social distancing.

Should a particular port close, Bermuda-bound vessels would have other options, shipping executives said.

Barry Brewer is the president and chief executive of Neptune Group Ltd, operators of Bermuda Container Line Ltd, which operates the MV Oleander.

The ship, which makes a weekly run from Port Elizabeth, New Jersey to the island, arrived on Monday with 215 containers, which Mr Brewer said was a 20 per cent increase in volume, year-over-year.

“That is probably reflective of restocking efforts,” he said.

The Oleander operates with 14 crew who normally work a 12-week shift before taking 12 weeks off while a second crew replaces them. Crew members, who are from Poland, Ukraine and Philippines, generally return home to visit their families once their shift is complete.

“The crew has been asked to stay on, to extend their service time, and we will review later in the summer,” Mr Brewer said.

BCL is limiting who can go aboard the ships, Mr Brewer said, while also cancelling shore leave.

The measures are intended to “reduce opportunities for the virus to get on board the ship”, Mr Brewer said.

US ports are likely to remain open, he added. “The reality is that the US needs to import goods like everyone else to feed their people,” Mr Brewer said. “Keeping ports open is critical for them. Our belief is that the US will focus on ports remaining open, and we have seen nothing contrary to that.”

If a port does close, Mr Brewer said ships could instead begin their voyage from Halifax in Canada, or from US ports Boston, Norfolk, Baltimore, Charleston or Jacksonville.

“If one port is closed, those other ports should be open,” he said. “We could put the vessel into several different ports.”

Mr Brewer said he was among invitees to a “very, very good meeting” hosted by the Government on Monday at the Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute. There, representatives of the island's three shipping lines were asked about their contingency plans, while wholesalers and retailers were questioned about the state of their stocks, Mr Brewer said.

Tjerk Neijmeijer is president and chief executive officer of Container Ship Management, which operates the Somers Isles container ship that makes the round trip to Bermuda three times monthly from Fernandina Beach, Florida. The ship will next arrive on Tuesday.

Aside from having no crew changes, cancelling shore leave, and restricting access, Mr Neijmeijer said half of staff members at the company's Florida office are working from home, with the other half in the office, while in Bermuda one person is working permanently from home.

The Somers Isles has seven crew working on contracts ranging from six months to a year, Mr Neijmeijer said, while officers work eight-week contracts. The most recent crew member to join the ship did so five weeks ago.

“They are all stuck on the vessel for the foreseeable future,” Mr Neijmeijer said. “They have been instructed not to leave the vessel while it is in port. The agent, and a customs officer, come on board but they are meeting on the poop deck outside the structure of the ship.”

Mr Neijmeijer said it was “highly unlikely” that US ports will close.

He added: “There might be individual ports that close depending on stevedores being able to work the ships, but we will cross that bridge if and when it shows up.”

George Butterfield is vice-president, freight, at Meyer Agencies, agents for the Bermuda Islander container ship, which sails weekly from Salem, New Jersey, arriving on Thursdays. The ship is operated by Bermuda International Shipping Ltd.

Mr Butterfield said: “Presently, BISL's first concern is to keep the crew and vessel safe. Part of our contingency plans consist of not having any crew transfers and not allowing the crew members to come ashore. Any visits to the ship by authorities are conducted outside on the poop deck.

“Since the port of Salem is a small privately-owned port, it's unlikely that it would close. As the port only services the Bermuda Islander, it can be easily monitored by US authorities. If by some slim chance it does, we can easily move anywhere along the eastern seaboard.”

Mr Butterfield said there has not been an increase in the number of containers making the voyage, but added “we are prepared to handle any additional cargo should the need arise”.

Mr Brewer said the three vessels that serve Bermuda generally operate at 50 per cent capacity.

“Bermuda has capacity in terms of shipping,” he said, “and we have options.”

Island supplier: The Bermuda Islander alongside at the Port of Salem, New Jersey

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Published March 18, 2020 at 9:00 am (Updated March 18, 2020 at 4:55 pm)

Shippers act to defend against virus disruption

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