RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Here's something you might not know - at any given time, there are more than 1.4 million seafarers traveling the world's waterways. These are the people working on oil tankers and cargo ships. Now, many of them are stranded. NPR's Jackie Northam explains.
JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: The coronavirus pandemic may be ravaging the U.S., but it hasn't slowed the action here at the Port of Baltimore. Massive ships bob in the murky waters, waiting to load or unload. In one corner of this expansive port, Reverend Mary Davisson pulls alongside a towering ship carrying cars and trucks.
MARY DAVISSON: So this is called the stern ramp. This is where we'll be boarding.
NORTHAM: Davisson hauls out plastic bags filled with goodies for the roughly two dozen seafarers she meets on board.
DAVISSON: We brought - you know, we usually bring magazines...
AAKIB HODEKAR: Oh, thank you. That's very nice of you.
DAVISSON: ...And Hershey's Kisses because we're not allowed to shake hands...
DAVISSON: ...But Kisses instead.
HODEKAR: Oh, all right.
NORTHAM: Davisson is with The Baltimore International Seafarers' Center, a nonpartisan group that helps crew members arriving in port. This past year has been particularly busy for Davisson's group because of the pandemic - buying SIM cards and personal items for crew members who are not allowed to get off the ship even after their contracts have ended. Aakib Hodekar is a seafarer from India.
HODEKAR: Actually supposed to be six months on the ship, but due to the COVID, we have extended contracts to eight months.
NORTHAM: And it could go longer once the ship sets sail for New Zealand and Australia. This is happening to seafarers all over the world.
STUART NEIL: At the peak, it's been 400,000 seafarers trapped at sea, not able to get home.
NORTHAM: Stuart Neil is with the International Chamber of Shipping, which represents the international shipping industry in more than 20 countries.
NEIL: We've heard stories of seafarers being on board ships for 17 months. That's way over the legal limits. And that takes a toll on the seafarers mentally, as well as physically.
NORTHAM: Jason Zuidema, executive director of the North American Maritime Ministry Association, says once the pandemic began, many countries worried about the quickly spreading virus prevented crew members from leaving the ships.
JASON ZUIDEMA: So there was a whole backlog of these crew changes, and certain countries closed their borders entirely.
NORTHAM: Captain Hedi Marzougui, a U.S. merchant marine, says he was comparatively lucky. He only spent six months at sea - twice his normal time. He said it was frustrating not being allowed to disembark at port.
HEDI MARZOUGUI: Well, it happened several times because we go back to Singapore every month. So every time, there's hope that we'll get off, and then there's, nope, not going to happen this time that happens. So it happened three times before I got off.
NORTHAM: Marzougui says most of the seafarers are from the Philippines, as well as India, Russia and China. He says it was tough as a captain when his crew asked him when they were going to get off the ship.
MARZOUGUI: I even heard a few people talk about faking or actually hurting themselves for real so they could go home - to the point where actually charterer sent an email saying that unless you die, you're not going to get off the ship.
NORTHAM: Even if the seafarers are allowed off, they need to quarantine two weeks at a local hotel. And then there's the challenge of finding a flight home. Captain Marzougui says, several times, the bigger shipping companies organize special flights to get crews home at considerable cost. But he says many of the smaller shipping companies don't want to go to that expense.
MARZOUGUI: There are companies out there that don't care. We're not a priority because we're a hidden workforce.
NORTHAM: And while it's tough for seafarers to get off the ships, there's those waiting to get on. They're losing money. International maritime organizations have been pushing governments and companies for more protections for the seafarers. Stephen Cotton, general secretary of the International Transport Workers' Federation, said there was progress in getting regular crew changes, then new variants of COVID began cropping up.
STEPHEN COTTON: It's so ironic. I think we felt just in December that we kind of got it to a place where it was beginning to be manageable. And then we see immediately the third wave. The different countries are closing their borders again.
NORTHAM: Meaning those who move most of the goods we depend on will likely have to stay at sea a bit longer.
Jackie Northam, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.