Offshore operations post-pandemic – where are we now?
Few industry sectors have worked through the past 18 months without coming up against unprecedented operational or financial challenges. The maritime sector is no different and has not escaped unscathed, despite being well-versed in change management and inherently familiar with the need for resilience and risk reduction.
Offshore colleagues and peers however have shown remarkable agility in adapting to new challenges presented by the pandemic, and continuing today, demonstrating great flexibility in dealing with seemingly insurmountable issues. COVID-19 effectively paralysed supply chains and travel, causing stark disruption to crew change operations.
Boreas Maritime, a full-service crewing agency based in The Netherlands, is not alone in having made some significant shifts in their areas of operation, as operations director Pascal Bounin explains: “We saw a marked decrease in international demand generally, up to 55% down in Africa and the Middle East for example. However, this was partially counteracted by a 75% increase in our European operations. Go figure! Fortunately, Boreas’ globally-focused business model enabled us to flex in line with demand and were able to contract or expand according to demand levels in each region.”
The impact that COVID-19 had on travel was immediate and drastic, with restrictions causing logistical chaos for those involved in the movement of crew around the world. Not only was flight availability incredibly tight, but costs to travel also increased hugely, with requirements for PCR tests, quarantine and isolation downtime all contributing to the mounting bill. Add to that the continuously changing and evolving entry requirements for each of the many countries Boreas serves and crew mobility was effectively stifled.
Seafarers, often referred to as the “forgotten keyworkers”, were acutely affected when the pandemic hit. The strain on crew and their families is hard to imagine and the struggle continues, with many having now left the sector for shore-based jobs that carry less risk to their mental and physical wellbeing. Bounin comments: “This needs to be remedied if we go through this again. Crew stranded onboard ships were separated from loved ones for far too long. We did our best to look after the families of our crew as they endured this hardship, but seafarers are critical workers and need to be treated as such much earlier on in any future pandemic situation.”
Offshore project pace
Many offshore projects themselves have also been subject to delays, although this is now translating into a busy 2021/2022 as operational pace picks up again. Boreas deals with peaks and troughs in demand for crew by running teams in fixed rotation, which benefits their clients with operational flow and continuity of supply despite the stop-start nature of operations on certain projects.
Planning and execution methodologies at Boreas Maritime have not changed significantly because of COVID-19, other than the introduction of online meetings to temporarily replace onboard visits and face-to-face interaction with clients. However, the pandemic-related border controls which impact crew changes are seemingly here to stay, at least for the time being as testing and quarantine criteria remain part of the entry requirements for many countries.
As restrictions ease onboard ships and in society in general, the primary focus for Boreas Maritime is, and always has been, safety for its crew. The shift towards autonomy with the sustainability benefits offered by uncrewed vessels has begun for specific offshore tasks like subsea inspection and survey, but Boreas believes people will always be in the loop. Bounin explains: “The uncrewed vessels in operation currently are relatively small and operated remotely by people onshore, so the jobs are simply moving to a safer environment, which is very positive given the challenges faced by crew during COVID-19. These vessels still need qualified, skilled and experienced seafarers to operate them.”
Supply and demand
COVID-19 triggered economic disruption on a scale unseen for decades and has resulted in deep recession and downturn for many countries. Despite the support given and pledged from governments around the world, the baseline forecast still indicates general decline in global movement and this will continue to impact offshore projects.
Bounin concludes: “It is not difficult to work out that, when and if the time comes to revert to global ‘business as usual’ in offshore operations, there will be dramatic shortages in the crew available to deploy and meet demand.”