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COVID-19 vaccinations for superyacht crew

Some owners are requesting crew are vaccinated and making their continued employment contingent on it…

As the COVID-19 vaccination rollout gathers momentum, vaccinating crewmembers will become increasingly relevant as governments around the world consider implementing some form of a vaccine passport for any visitors. As well as protecting themselves and their crew against coronavirus, superyacht owners now have the added incentive of having a vaccinated crew: freer movement between countries.

In fact, this is already starting to have an impact on the industry. In a recent conversation with SuperyachtNews.com, MCM reported that, as well as requesting that crew are tested on a regular basis, some owners are requesting that crew are vaccinated and making their continued employment contingent on it.

Sailing yacht Q5, for example, has now introduced a vaccination clause into its crew contracts. “I was a bit nervous when I presented the crew with the clause, because you never know if everyone is going to want to take it or not, but all the crew did get vaccinated and so did the owners,” says Captain Chris Bruce. “We’re now operating in a so-called restricted bubble where everything’s a bit more normal on the boat, but we are still restricted when going ashore.”

So, how easy is it for an owner to add a COVID-19 vaccination clause to a seafarer employment agreement (SEA) and what are the legalities surrounding it? While not formal advice, Peter Wilson, co-founder of MCM, offers his understanding of the issue; “We’ve received some guidance from the Cayman Islands’ Shipping Master, who sees no issue with the vaccine being a requirement for the employment of new crew. Currently employed crew have the right to refuse the vaccine and, if so, they would not be in breach of contract and, therefore, would require full notice according to the SEA. However, owners may wish to seek separate legal advice on this to ensure that they are not in breach of any laws.”

“Currently employed crew have the right to refuse the vaccine and, if so, they would not be in breach of contract and, therefore, would require full notice according to the SEA.”

Wilson adds that, if countries start to adopt vaccine passports and make vaccination mandatory for anyone visiting, then, much like with the yellow fever vaccine, crew would have to comply with that to work there. “If they choose not to then this might be somewhat different to the above scenario where it is an owner/vessel decision to require vaccination, and is more like not having a relevant visa, for example,” he explains.

After much consideration, Ocean Independence concluded not to implement any formal clauses in crew employment agreements regarding COVID-19 vaccinations. Jason Gilbert, operations manager at Ocean Independence explains; “As part of the recruitment and engagement process for crewmembers, for many years seafarers have been asked to declare their vaccination status as part of their medical declaration. Traditionally the list of vaccinations has included Yellow Fever, Hepatitis, etc., and now we have simply added COVID-19 to the list of common/anticipated vaccinations.

“If a yacht owner on board their yacht wishes to have all his close contacts vaccinated against COVID-19 then, certainly, any potential new crew recruit who was already been vaccinated would have an advantage over non-vaccinated candidates in this area of the selection process for that particular yacht. Fundamentally, this principle is very similar to the selection process for a crewmember being recruited for a cargo ship heading to an area of the world where a Yellow Fever vaccination is a pre-requisite.”

What is more unusual, Gilbert adds, is that the global relevance and rapid deployment of vaccinations against COVID-19 has brought the aspect of vaccinations for crew already employed into consideration. “If an owner has concluded that all their close contacts on board, including the crew, are to be vaccinated, then their wishes will be totally respected and this will be achieved,” he continues. “In practice, given that yacht crew are very much owner and guest orientated; they typically respect the request and full vaccination, when requested, has been readily achieved.

“If a crewmember, in full knowledge that a lack of a COVID-19 vaccination would impact on their employment, would refuse to obtain such a vaccination, then the crewmember’s agreement would need to be terminated in order to fulfil the owner’s wishes, using the appropriate notice period termination clauses which are included in all Seafarer Employment Agreements.”

Gilbert adds that, in reality, the greatest obstacle to preparation for the 2021 summer season has been ensuring crewmembers can obtain vaccinations, either locally during their service period on board, or negotiating the various travel restrictions in order for them to return home, usually on two occasions.

At the moment, requesting that crewmembers are vaccinated might be straightforward for yachts that are based in the US, where the vaccination rollout is more established. However, it’s a different story for yachts and crewmembers based in countries where the rollout is much slower and only available to certain priority groups, as is the case in many European countries (at the time of writing).

This also might leave many crewmembers in a difficult position this year, potentially having to choose between a job or securing a vaccine. As Captain Van der Duijn Schouten, vessel manager of expedition vessel MS Cape Race, explains, “Vaccinations in Germany have started slow, although it’s picking up speed now. I have had one case of a foreign crewmember deciding not to join but instead wait for a vaccination back home. I have other crewmembers who are so far down the priority list they’ll have to wait some more months.

“At the same time, the IMO has declared seafarers a priority group but this has not been adopted by the German government yet. With most vaccines being two-shot vaccines, the question is also how we could possibly organise the vaccination in port or otherwise. In my opinion, port health authority agencies in different countries should focus on vaccinating crewmembers instead of doing more health inspections.”

“I have had one case of a foreign crewmember deciding not to join but instead wait for a vaccination back home.”

Some yacht agents are, however, starting to organise vaccinations for crew. BWA Yachting, for example, is facilitating the vaccination of crewmembers (but not offering it as a service on board) in both New England and Corsica. “In New England, it is quite easy for visiting crew to make an appointment or walk up to the vaccination facility. The local BWA Yachting team has been advising captains on how to register and has taken one crewmember in for a vaccine so far,” says Francesca Fenucci, head of marketing and communications at BWA Yachting.

“In Corsica, vaccinations are only possible by appointments at the vaccination centres in the Porto-Vecchio, Ajaccio and Calvi areas, and they require full name and date of birth, as well as medical information. With the vaccination centres being really full, however, it’s not easy to find availability.”

In Florida, however, BWA Yachting can book vaccines for crew and have been doing it for a few months. “We offer the vaccine on board, at a lab or assist with bookings at local pharmacies,” adds Fenucci. “We have lots of very happy crews. Vaccines are free at the lab, but there is a charge to have a nurse come to the boat. Theoretically, you should be a Florida resident, however, the crew on a superyacht are considered temporary US residents, and this is why they are allowed to get the vaccine onsite.” 

As vaccinations become more readily available, either privately or through governments worldwide, the issue of vaccination clauses is likely to become more prevalent throughout the industry. Perhaps it is a conversation that needs to start happening between all owners, managers, captains and crew to ensure everyone is aware of, and prepared for, the on-board expectations during this next phase of the pandemic.

The upcoming The Superyacht Captains Report features a look at the impact and cost of the COVID-19 pandemic on the crew sector. To subscribe to the magazine, please click here.

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