The 19 seafarers enjoyed their long overdue shore leave in the city of Townsville which has been COVID-19 free for several months.
“It is just freedom,” said able seaman Bandara Ranaseha from Sri Lanka of his first steps off the ship.
“I want to look around, see people and trees and walk,” said ship’s fitter Sajith Gunasekara, also from Sri Lanka.
Some of the crew have been aboard the ship for 13 months — their contracts were extended as they could not return to their own countries due to flight cancellations and international travel restrictions.
Gunasekara said before the pandemic they would get shore leave once or twice a month.
He said being cooped up with the same faces for so long took its toll on his mental health.
“Without shore leave, onboard we stay under too much pressure,” Gunasekara said.
“This time it is very difficult staying onboard. Every day we go outside and all we can see is the sea, no trees, no land.”
His colleague Ajith Nandasena agreed.
“Sometimes it is feeling like a prison,” he said.
Families worry about coronavirus risk
As with most seafarers, the crew wanted to buy a SIM card to connect with family as soon as they disembarked.
After that they headed for a local shopping centre.
Ranaseha bought a souvenir Aussie T-shirt to add to his collection of shirts from countries around the world.
Gunasekara, who has been aboard for 11 months, said his current contract was supposed to be his last before retirement.
However, he is not sure exactly when he will be able to return home.
“It is not possible to sign off as some countries are in lockdown,” Gunasekara said.
“We are always thinking about how we go home because our families are waiting.”
He said his family was more worried about him than usual due to the risk of coronavirus.
“My child, my daughter, and wife ask me ‘when are you coming?’” he said.
Support for lonely and worried seafarers
Mission to Seafarers is a not-for-profit support service for those working in the shipping industry.
Of the 28 Australian missions, Townsville was one of just two able to remain open during coronavirus shutdowns.
Manager Graham Miller said when crews are unable to come to shore his volunteers provide assistance with care packages of DVDs, games, and parcels of groceries dropped at the gangway.
“They are really grateful when we take those to the gangway of the ship,” Miller said.
“We don’t go onboard so that we keep all COVID protocols correct. But the crew are just brilliantly happy to see us.”
Miller said he had concerns about the mental health impacts on seafarers being unable to leave the ship and unsure about their return home.
“They are always polite when they come in and they always look happy,” he said.
“But then you have only got to ask a couple of questions and you start to see the cracks. At present the cracks are starting to become valleys.
“They are lonely, they are worried for their own families. There is genuine anxiety about getting home and supporting their families.”
International cricket in the hold
Before they came to Townsville the crew were in Chilean waters for a month.
They loaded cargo but were unable to go ashore due to the coronavirus risk.
The Sri Lankan sailors started teaching some of their colleagues how to play cricket in the cargo hold.
“Last time, this one Chinese third officer and Filipino colleague joined me but they didn’t know [how to play], so we taught them,” Gunasekara said.
– ABC / Nathalie FernbachJump to next article