By Adam Lusher on Apr 17, 2020
The wind is blowing nearly a gale as Captain Abdul Sami talks from the bridge of the fuel tanker, Silver Eburna.
The waves are six metres tall. Every moveable object on board has been tied down, but it is not the storm that worries the crew. It is the port.
“We are heading for the epicentre of the US coronavirus outbreak,” says Captain Sami. “New York.”
There is understandable concern among the 23 men, one woman and 10 nationalities who make up the tanker’s all-Shell crew.
Some ports are refusing to let seafarers leave their ships, even to be treated for potentially serious conditions like appendicitis.
If an outbreak of COVID-19 happens at sea, beyond the range of an evacuation helicopter, they will be isolated in their cabin while the ship’s medical officer and other crewmates help them.
Captain Sami acknowledges the concerns, but adds: “We are seafarers. We face challenges every day.”
Keeping the supply chains going
He and his crew are just some of Shell’s key workers seeking to keep supply chains operating in the face of a global pandemic that has paralysed many of the world’s economies.
According to the World Health Organization, by mid-April the disease had infected around 2 million people, killed more than 120,000 and forced several billion into lockdown.
As coronavirus spreads through nearly every country, Shell’s staff and contractors continue to deliver energy and fuel used to run hospitals, ambulances, and the homes of those confined to their houses and apartments.
No one has experienced anything quite like this before.
On the Silver Eburna – one of Shell’s fleet of tankers and liquefied natural gas (LNG) carriers taking fuel to ports all over the world – the crew have been preparing for when the New York pilot comes on board to guide them safely into harbour.
Since anyone new coming on board could raise the risk of infection, one crew member will lead the way, walking two or three metres ahead of the pilot, with another following behind at a safe distance, sanitising everything. They have the personal protective equipment they need.
Sakinah Razip, the youngest crew member, enjoyed her 19th birthday celebration in mid-Atlantic: snacks and games with her fellow seafarers at safe social distances.
“I have wanted to go to New York since I was a girl,” she says. “Now, no one will be able to go ashore. But at least I’ll get a good view of the skyline from the ship’s bridge.”
Doing their duty
An ocean away, Gourab Nandi, describes “the abnormal slowly becoming the normal”.
Whenever he boards a ship now, the pilot at the Shell-managed Hazira port in Gujarat, India, wears full anti-coronavirus personal protective equipment: coverall, goggles, gloves and face mask. So, increasingly, do the crews of ships visiting from different countries and different companies.
The port’s regasification facility turns cargoes of LNG back into gas for domestic use and industrial activities like steelmaking.
Initially, neighbours were curious as to why shift supervisor Krishna Gupta was leaving his family home during a nationwide lockdown.
“Family members wanted explanations too,” he says. “My colleague’s wife had to tell their three-year-old daughter: ‘If Daddy doesn’t go, the facility will shut down and no one will have gas at home. Your father must do his duty.’”
Duty also calls in Basrah, southern Iraq. The Basrah Gas Company (BGC), a joint venture between the Iraqi government, Shell and Mitsubishi, supplies 80% of Iraq’s liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) for cooking and heating.
By capturing natural gas that would otherwise be burned off, or flared, during oil production, BGC can supply enough gas to generate electricity for the 5 million people of Basrah province.
“The plant is essential in ensuring that millions of Iraqis have electricity, and gas for cooking and heating,” says Frits Klap, BGC’s managing director.
Ali Talib, the company’s maintenance director, says police enforcing the coronavirus curfew salute BGC workers on their way to the plant.
“It’s a big responsibility to keep everything running safely,” he says. He has volunteered to work seven days a week to ensure the lights stay on and people can cook during the crisis.
Some 5,000 kilometres away, in the UK North Sea, Jon Bona, talks of how he is motivating his team on the Shell-operated Nelson oil and gas platform.
“I’m telling them how essential our work is. It’s about keeping the lights on, the hospitals running and the ambulances refuelled,” says the oil and gas installation manager.
He describes how one helicopter, shared between Shell and other energy companies, has been specially adapted to carry suspected coronavirus sufferers. It has a sturdy plastic shield protecting the flight crew from the passengers.
The number of people working on the platform has been reduced from the normal complement of around 110 to a skeleton staff of 53: “No one has to share a cabin. You can isolate if you get ill.”
Spirits are high, despite worries for themselves and for families back home.
They have a sense of purpose. And ways of raising morale.
“Never underestimate the effect of ice cream on a North Sea worker,” says Bona. “Mackie’s honeycomb ice cream is the way to our hearts.”