The maritime folklore of ghost ship, “Flying Dutchman” happens to be very popular and it has inspired hundreds of paintings, books, operas and movies. Are ghost ships only limited to the folklores and Halloween stories? In the world of modern maritime, the term ghost ship has a much more practical meaning.
Ghost ships are vessels floating with no living crew onboard. These abandoned vessels drift in the ocean and appear suddenly at some coast or are spotted midsea giving rise to a series of questions about ownership, crew safety, environmental hazard, security of state, etc. These vessels could have been abandoned under any unknown circumstances. Later these ships become subject to horror stories as these abandoned vessels have many unanswered questions, such as: What happened to the crew? From where did the vessel arrive? and many more attached to them. It is interesting to learn the reasons behind the abandonment of vessels which later turn up as ghost ships.
“Ninety percent of everything” was how Rose George titled her 2013 book on the shipping industry. That is how important the world’s merchant fleet is to global trade. Yet when the Covid-19 pandemic struck, politicians the world over were seemingly unaware of the significance of cargo-ship crews’ work. Unlike cross-border lorry drivers, airline pilots, and cabin crew, seafarers were not designated as key workers – with tragic consequences for the sailors and their families in countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia, and India.
Stranded at sea
The travel restrictions imposed by governments around the world have made crew changes and repatriation of seafarers massively difficult. The result has been a humanitarian crisis of unheard-of proportions – and one made worse by a widespread lack of interest in the seafarers’ plight. The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) estimates that around 400,000 seafarers were stranded on their ships in December 2020 – unable to make their way home and many months past the end of their original contracts. A similar number of seafarers were stuck at home, prevented from joining their ships and earning much-needed money to support their families in countries without welfare networks.