Madeleine Wolczko is the second officer and primary navigator of the President Wilson, a 277-meter long, 65,792-ton cargo ship. She’s also been cataloguing the lives of the crew as they’ve sat trapped aboard the Wilson for months in Shanghai.
The Seattle Times caught up with Wolczko during a bout of homesickness for California. The 30-person crew of the Wilson has been stranded in Shanghai since early February, unable to even leave the ship to go down to the dock due to COVID-19 lockdown measures. These same measures slowed repairs to the vessel to a crawl and, without the repairs, Chinese officials wouldn’t let them leave.
As the months-long quarantine lifted in Shanghai last week and jubilant residents descended into the streets, Wolczko sat in her cabin dispirited and pining for the day when she and the rest of the crew aboard the President Wilson will be able to sail again.
“It gets to a point where you really have to numb yourself to it, otherwise you spiral in this downward despair,” Wolczko said by telephone Friday as she jogged on the ship’s rickety treadmill.
Of the nearly 30 crew members onboard, she is the only woman.
She vents her frustration by kickboxing a punching bag in the gym. But it is the mental blows that hurt the most, the false rumors about being airlifted, the many departure dates that have come and gone.
“It definitely feels we are getting bludgeoned over and over again and at this point are just kind of taking the hits,” she said.
She was supposed to be done with this tour of duty March 18.
While the entire story from the Times is great, Wolczko’s videos of what life locked down on a cargo ship is like in a series she calls Restricted to Ship are also worth your time. In the most recent episode, the crew talked about their daily duties, fetched vegetable rations dropped off by the Chinese government, gave each other hair cuts, and took PCR test after PCR test. The crew was hopeful when this episode was posted that they soon may be underway. Some work crews had returned to the vessel, though in teams of 50 workers rather than 500, and there’s hopeful talk of returning home soon.
The crew of the President Wilson is certainly not alone. In the latest episode, Wolczko waves to the crew of the Stardust, a similarly stranded vessel. She noted other ships in the yard hadn’t seen any work crews at all yet, highlighting the backups. According to the Guardian:
It is surprisingly common for ships and their crews to be stranded and sometimes abandoned due to disappearing owners, pay disputes and management troubles – widespread enough that the International Labour Organization maintains a database of cases of abandoned seafarers.
Mohamed Arrachedi, a coordinator at the ITF, said the status of seafarers rarely took precedence despite their essential role in global trade. “Seafarers aren’t a priority when there’s conflict,” he said.
Abandonment officially occurs when shipowners fail to cover seafarers’ repatriation costs, pay their wages or otherwise shirk their responsibilities to provide seafarers with support for more than two months.
According to the International Maritime Organisation, there were at least 31 cases of abandonment between January and August 2020, concerning 470 seafarers. The IMO has recorded 438 cases affecting 5,767 seafarers since 2004.
As of today, the President Wilson is still in Shanghai.