When COVID invades a ship: Filipino captain tells ordeal of infection while at sea

“It was heart-breaking seeing my two officers gasping for breath.”

The captain of the cargo vessel MV Athens Bridge, which carried seafarers infected with India variant of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), has shared what he described as a “horrendous” experience during their battle against the viral disease at sea.

(Photo courtesy of the PCG / FILE PHOTO)

India to Vietnam journey

MV Athens Bridge Captain Marlon Quiñones, in an interview with the Manila Bulletin, said that it was a normal ship’s operation and the crew members followed the safety protocols during their whole stay in Chennai and Kattupalli ports in India.

The Panama-flagged cargo vessel departed from India on April 22 and proceeded to their next port of call in Kelang, Malaysia. After their smooth vessel operation there, they next proceeded in Haipong, Vietnam.

(Photo courtesy of the PCG / FILE PHOTO)

“After three days of sailing, the second officer of the ship reported that he was not feeling well and that his body temperature was 38.1°C. He was also coughing at that time. Since these were symptoms also of COVID-19 not only flu, I reported it immediately to our head office and isolated the second officer,” Quiñones told the Manila Bulletin.

A day after, the captain had also experienced the same symptoms followed by the third officer and messboy.

They arrived in Haiphong, Vietnam last May 1, and there, all of its personnel were subjected to a reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) test.

It was later found out that among the 21 crew members, nine of the 12 crewmen who tested positive were found to be infected with the India variant.

“After receiving the dreadful news from our Haiphong agent that 12 crew members tested positive of COVID-19 including me, and that the port decision was to deny the vessel from entry unless all crew compliment must be changed first. I told the agent that the fastest way to carry out the port’s requirement was to divert the vessel to Manila because Haiphong port prohibits any crew change arrangement unless you are a Vietnamese national,” Quiñones said.

Gathering their whole strength, they settled all essential matters as they navigate the vessel safely to Manila. He also called and assured the head office that they can still proceed safely.

Quiñones said their head office instructed them to order necessary medical supplies and additional oxygen bottles before leaving the Haiphong port.

“I went down immediately to my cabin and prayed whole heartedly in tears to God Jehovah for His guidance, forgiveness, and charity. Then after composing myself, I met up with all the positive crew members because my main concern was how will we run the vessel safely to Manila since myself, all deck officers, engineers, cook, and messboy were all infected,” the captain shared.

COVID-19 battle at sea

The crew members continued to fight the viral disease until the health condition of the second and third officer worsened.

The captain received a report that they can no longer take a watch on the bridge. He was short-handed by two officers and even having the symptoms of the viral disease, he still took the responsibility to take over their watches with the assistance of the capable seafarers onboard.

The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) delivered oxygen tanks and transported the Bureau of Quarantine (BOQ) doctors to assess the Filipino crew members onboard MV Athens Bridge from India. (Photo courtesy of PCG Commander Michael Andag)

“On May 4, other positive crew members were also showing symptoms already but the third officer’s conditioned was progressing faster. He already requested to be put on oxygen to assist his breathing,” he said.

The remaining seafarers were assigned to take care of them and did all the cooking as well.

In the morning of May 5, the second officer also requested for an oxygen support.

The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) delivered oxygen tanks and transported the Bureau of Quarantine (BOQ) doctors to assess the Filipino crew members onboard MV Athens Bridge from India. (Photo courtesy of PCG Commander Michael Andag)

“I had a hard time looking at them, it was heart breaking seeing my two officers gasping for their breath. Facing such horrendous situation especially when you are COVID-19 victim yourself was the most egregious experienced by far of my sea life. Before I can motivate others I had to motivate myself first,” the captain said.

Their college senior mantra "It's all in the mind", became the strength of Quiñones to continue.

“I started boosting the morale as well of my crew members and told them that COVID-19 is just one episode of our life, which we will surely defeat it. I told them, that the mind has control over the body, and do not worry because help is on the way. Most importantly, pray hold on to what God had said on Isaiah 41:10,” he said.

‘Go signal’ for help

As they arrived in Manila on May 5, they are still waiting for the “go signal” to enter in the Manila Bay area. In the meantime, they drifted and waited in the Corregidor Island.

Their agent confirmed that they can proceed and enter in Manila Bay on May 6. The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) vessel and Bureau of Quarantine (BOQ) assisted them as the two officers were successfully evacuated and brought to a hospital.

(Photo courtesy of the Department of Transportation)

They also disembarked the vessel on that day and was brought to a quarantine hotel arranged by the BOQ personnel.

Quiñones has commended their manning agency, ship managers, and the Philippine maritime agencies for keeping them safe throughout their journey.

Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire confirmed in a virtual forum on Monday, May 23, that one of the seafarer died.

The seafarer was one of the nine crew members of the MV Athens Bridge who were detected to be carrying the COVID-19 Indian variant.

As of Monday, May 31, the 17 of the crew members already returned home to their respective families, while Quiñones and the second engineer remained in the quarantine facility after they tested positive for the second time during their re-swabbing last May 25.

Meanwhile, one crew member is still in the hospital but is continuously recovering.

PCG Commander of Port State Control Center National Capital Region – Central Luzon Michael Andag told the Manila Bulletin that after being cleared for travel the cargo vessel MV Athens Bridge departed with new 19 Filipino seafarers on board on Friday, May 14.