On 24th February last, Yuri, Petro and Oleksander were at sea. At their posts aboard their respective Marfret vessels, the seamen were stunned to learn of the Russian attack on their homeland, Ukraine. Incredulity gave way to anguish and distress: return home by whatever means to protect their families and country, or continue to work to provide for their loved ones? These mixed emotions created confusion and uncertainty, they felt they were prisoners, there was a sense of guilt. This fragile mental state is the opposite of what is needed for their job as seamen, which requires concentration and a cool head to make the right decisions for the vessel’s safe running. It was a potentially dangerous state of affairs.
While Ukrainian and Russian seamen work side by side as colleagues aboard ships, their countrymen on shore have for the past month been engaged in a merciless, fratricidal war. Ukrainians represent 38% of Marfret’s crew numbers, essentially in engine room positions as engineers, chief engineers, motormen or fitters.
Indeed, the Odesa Maritime Academy, recognized for the high quality of teaching, trains many engineering officers. Marseille, which is home to Marfret, is twinned with Odesa, with Marfret having employed Ukrainian seamen to oversee the running of its ships’ engines for the past 20 years or so.
Ukraine has 76,442 registered seamen (4% of the world total), including 47,058 officers and 29,383 ordinary seamen. Together with their Russian counterparts, they alone make up 14.5% of the world’s merchant marine crews. Everybody remembers the prestigious Soviet-era Black Sea Shipping Company, based in Kiev until its demise in the 90’s.
Today, more than ever, Marfret stands by its Ukrainian crews and their families. I know some of them personally, having worked alongside them. We need to find the best way to organize crew changes from Poland and Romania in order to protect our Ukrainian crews’ jobs. We have many difficulties to overcome, both on the human and administrative levels, for example certifications not being renewed and visa problems. We have arranged accommodation in Romania to provide safe shelter for our Ukrainian crews’ families. Marfret is fully behind its Ukrainian crew members and have even adopted the country’s colours to show our solidarity.