Catching Covid-19 on a commercial ship

For mariners working on commercial vessels, the process of obtaining official documents is not the only change Covid-19 has brought. In October, President Biden mandated masks be worn on board all U.S.-flagged commercial vessels. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) backed the mandate and added some recommendations of its own. 

Along with wearing masks, the CDC advises crews on U.S. vessels be vaccinated, trained on the symptoms of the disease and assigned a single-berth room. Crews also are encouraged to maintain physical distancing. Without the Coast Guard enforcing these protocols, however, compliance can vary significantly. 

William, a friend and chief engineer, was working on a fish processing ship that followed some of these suggestions. Company policy required crews to be vaccinated against Covid-19 and test negative for the virus before starting work. Though not required by the company, William wore a mask and sanitized his hands and tools often. Nevertheless, he came down with Covid-19 within the first month. 

Being older, the chief was sick longer and more severely, with fever, vomiting, dizziness, coughing and weakness. He had his own room, and for part of each day was able to socially isolate and eat alone. But the company provided no medication to help him recover. And, he was still expected to put in 12- to 16-hour days while fighting the virus. 

Many other crewmembers also came down with Covid-19. When the vessel finally reached port, William was quarantined by the company, along with the others infected, in accordance with their policy. The entire crew was tested. If the results came back negative, they were allowed to go ashore with mask and gloves. 

Thankfully no one died on William’s shift. Unfortunately, that has not been the case on all U.S. vessels. Many mariners working on American ships have tested positive for the virus, and there have been Covid-19 deaths on board as well. Accurate data, however, is hard to come by.

Historically, infectious diseases such as smallpox, typhoid and diphtheria have spread not only on ships but around the world. More recently, ships have been vectors for West Nile virus and Legionnaires’ disease. Of course, any viral outbreak at sea affects not only the crew involved, but vessel operations as well. 

I was a cadet years ago on a SeaLand ship when a Taiwanese flu went around the vessel after leaving Kaohsiung. Luckily, there were enough people on board to keep things running smoothly. We had two able-bodied seamen (AB) and an ordinary on each watch. Crew too ill to work could rest and heal, and the rest could work their regular watch schedule.

Today, there is just one AB on each watch on most ships. That, coupled with similar reductions in other departments, leaves no leeway if someone gets sick. Other crewmembers may have to work longer hours to cover for ill colleagues. 

I believe that more crew on each vessel are called for — especially during this pandemic. Ships worth close to a billion dollars, carrying millions of dollars of cargo, should not operate shorthanded. The risks to the mariners, the environment and the vessel itself are just too great. 

In my opinion, the CDC should make an extensive list of preventive and recovery procedures for infectious diseases on board U.S. merchant vessels — especially Covid-19. The U.S. Coast Guard should ensure these disease prevention and recovery protocols are fully enforced.

Thus far, that hasn’t happened. As mariners, we need to know the Covid-19 prevention measures enforced on the vessels we are working. And we should decide for ourselves if the companies are following enough of them. If they aren’t, it is important to remember that we can always get another job — but we can never get another life.

Til next time, stay safe and smooth sailin.’

Capt. Kelly Sweeney holds the license of master (oceans, any gross tons) and has held a master of towing vessels (oceans) license as well. He has sailed on more than 40 commercial vessels and lives on an island near Seattle. He can be contacted by email at