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From Longview to Tanzania: the long, strange journey of a Chinese crew struggling to get home

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Columbia River

An unidentified cargo ship is moored May 10 on the Columbia River in Longview.

Boarding the Tai Honesty off Longview earlier this month, U.S. Coast Guard inspectors found the 623-foot-long bulk cargo ship to be unseaworthy.

The problem had nothing to do with leaks, engine trouble or overloading. Instead, the Coast Guard team at the Southwest Washington port focused on the risk posed by a dozen homesick Chinese crew members, who had been stuck on the vessel for more than 14 months.

“Crew fatigue and the duration of time that critical crew members have been on board ... presented a clearly hazardous condition to the safety of the ship and the waterway,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Michael Clark of the Coast Guard’s 13th District.

The Coast Guard ordered the Tai Honesty to stay moored near the Columbia River port until a dozen new crew had been brought in as replacements, Clark said. This unusual action involved collaboration with Washington-based representatives of the International Transport Workers’ Federation, who found that the workers were four months past the 10-month maximum duty time specified in their labor agreement.

“When we went on board, one of the seafarers came right up to us and said, ‘We want to go home,’” recalled Jeff Engels, who is based in Seattle for the federation, an association of international unions. “That’s what this is about. Getting them home.”

On Saturday, the dozen crew members were allowed to leave the ship, Engels said. They then flew to Tanzania, where they are scheduled to quarantine before returning home to China.

The Tai Honesty crew members are part of a workforce that labors aboard foreign vessels vital to moving cargo in and out of Washington ports. Since the COVID-19 pandemic set in, many maritime crews that move goods internationally have found themselves stuck on board vessels for weeks or months past contract expiration dates.

In December 2020, the challenges encountered by international crews trying to return home drew the attention of the United Nations General Assembly, which passed a resolution urging governments to allow “stranded seafarers to be repatriated,” expedite their travel and ensure their access to medical care.

The Coast Guard, in a March 2021 safety bulletin, cited the “physical and mental fatigue of seafarers unable to leave their vessels at the end of their contracts” as a “growing humanitarian concern.” That bulletin included an email address for international mariners to notify the Coast Guard if they were facing obstacles to returning to their home countries amid a crew change.

The Tai Honesty came to Longview to pick up soybean meal, according to Ashley Helenberg, a Longview Port official. The vessel’s registered owner is Taiwan-based Tai Shing Maritime but it sails under the Panamanian flag, according to documents reviewed by Engels. A company representative could not be reached for comment.

The transport federation refers to such arrangements — where a ship operates and is taxed under the laws of the country whose flag it is flying — as “flags of convenience.” Engels is West Coast coordinator for a global campaign by the federation to monitor such vessels and enforce collective bargaining agreements.

Before the vessel arrived in Longview, the Coast Guard received a tip from someone on the vessel about the concerns of 12 seamen — part of a larger crew of more than 20 — about their length of shipboard duty. The Coast Guard then relayed the information to the International Transport Workers’ Federation, according to Clark, the Coast Guard spokesperson.

China has locked down Shanghai and other cities in an effort to contain an outbreak of the coronavirus, and the nation’s extreme efforts to contain the virus include lengthy quarantines for crews returning from service on international routes.

Engels said he and another federation inspector, Portland-based Ryan Brazeau, both boarded the Tai Honesty on May 6 to meet with crew after trying without success to negotiate with a representative of the owner to secure flights home to China.

But after that meeting, the Coast Guard ordered the ship to remain in port. The owner then agreed to bring in the new crew, Engels said.

By May 14, the new crew had arrived, and Brazeau returned to the vessel to bid farewell to the departing crew members.

“They were very excited. The captain was the first one to say thank you,” Brazeau said.

The Tai Honesty is now en route to its next port of call in the Philippines, according to the Port of Longview’s Helenberg. And the 12 former crew members have begun a quarantine of uncertain duration in Tanzania. Engels said the federation has asked the owner to provide pay, as well as room and board, while the crew is in Tanzania. He is still unsure if that pay, which is called for in the labor contract, will be provided.

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