SINGAPORE - Chief engineer Awadhesh Prasad was looking forward to going home to India after his four-month contract with shipping company Executive Ship Management ended.
But the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic scuppered his plans as borders were closed, and he and the crew of the Crimson Monarch could not disembark from the bulk carrier.
This meant that Mr Prasad, 54, could not return home to Ranchi, capital city of eastern Jharkand, in February as planned.
He ended up continuing on the ship's journey to Canada, Brazil and Australia, among other countries, for about four more months, before his employer found him a way back on a chartered flight.
The bulk carrier had not reached any port since May 9, when it left Brazil.
"Finally, today, I can go home," he told The Straits Times at Changi Airport Terminal 1 Departure Hall on Friday (June 12).
Mr Prasad was one of 87 ship crew members who boarded a chartered flight to Mumbai on Friday afternoon, after he disembarked from the Crimson Monarch to a smaller vessel which took him to Marina South Pier.
The chartered plane had flown 54 crew members from Mumbai to Singapore to replace the departing crew on six ships for their onward journey from the Port of Singapore.
The Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) said on Friday that it has approved more than 4,000 cases of crew sign-on and sign-off for more than 300 companies and 500 ships since March 27.
Signing-on and signing-off refer to the ship's handover process when one crew replaces another.
Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan raised the issue of seafarers being stranded due to Covid-19 restrictions worldwide on his Facebook page on Tuesday in response to a Financial Times article.
"Many crew have worked several months beyond their contracts, due to recent travel restrictions which bar crew from disembarking to return home," said Mr Khaw.
"This has led to the international shipping industry threatening to cease sailing unless replacement crew can be brought in."
Mr Khaw said this issue could potentially disrupt or clog up the global supply chain, given that commercial vessels carry 80 per cent of world trade.
Senior Minister of State for Transport and Health Lam Pin Min said in a Facebook post on Friday that the Republic has been facilitating crew change with a new protocol outlined in the Singapore Crew Change Guidebook.
The guide was developed by the Singapore Shipping Association and the Singapore Maritime Officers' Union, with MPA's support.
MPA chief executive Quah Ley Hoon said: "We have seen a sharp increase in the daily crew change applications since our last Port Marine Circular (on May 22)... Singapore has a responsibility to facilitate crew change in a safe manner for both the country and the ships, given the ongoing pandemic.
"The (guidebook) sets out a 'safe corridor' which companies can now use consistently and reliably for crew changes."
Getting a flight into India, which has banned air travel, was not easy, said Executive Ship Management managing director S.P. Singh.
"International flights are banned in India... In order to charter a plane, we had to go through a long process to get the relevant permissions. The Singapore authorities had been very cooperative," he added.
The back-up plan was to wait for governments to reinstate international flights, which Mr Singh felt was not a viable option.
"The seafarers were having a tough time, not seeing their families," Mr Singh said, adding that the crew's family members in India had been asking the company when their loved ones could come home.
Mr Prasad said that he called his wife and daughter every couple of days to check in.
"They are very understanding of the situation because it's all reported in the news. They kept asking me to take care," he said.
The vessel was never at risk of running out of food, and the crew could use high-speed Internet to call home, but it was the uncertainty of securing a way home before the pandemic ceased that frustrated Mr Prasad.
"It's very difficult, not knowing when I can go home... I worry for my family," he said.