SAN DIEGO, Calif. — As the pandemic upended our lives, an invisible workforce helped keep some normalcy intact. Traveling the world on oil tankers and cargo ships, seafarers deliver everything from food to fuel, medicine, and personal protective equipment (PPE).
“We were just working a lot," said Michael Napoleone. "We were putting in from eight to 12-hour days, every single day."
As a supply officer, Napoleone delivers fuel, food, and cargo to U.S. Navy ships at sea. Working thousands of miles from home, he's accustomed to long shifts and missed holidays. But during the pandemic, his assignment no longer had an expiration date.
“I was supposed to be gone for four months," said Napoleone. “We saw about three ports, and we were not allowed to leave or talk to anybody or get off the ship for 11 months. We were stuck onboard just going stir crazy.”
Typically, around 100,000 crew changes take place every month. But border closures and COVID-19 restrictions have prevented seafarers from going home and taking shore leave, forcing thousands to work months beyond their contracts.
"You wake up early. Maybe you go to the gym. Eat, work, and then go to sleep," said Napoleone.
At the peak, he was among 400,000 seafarers trapped at sea.
“I described it to some people like, you see those caged animals in the zoo and they’re kind of pacing. You can see that they’re stressed, but it’s like a sort of dull, constant stress. That’s what it was like," said Napoleone.
Last September, the secretary general of the United Nations appealed for governments to act on behalf of seafarers and other maritime workers stuck at sea for months, and in some cases, more than a year.
The UN passed a resolution, calling for an urgent response from all stakeholders, including the private sector, to resolve the situation.
Napoleone says social isolation brought on by the pandemic is amplified at sea.
“We would lose internet for a month at a time: no Facetime, no Zoom, no nothing. You're in the middle of the ocean. That stuff doesn't exist out there," Napoleone said.
After 11 months on the ship, he was finally able to fly home to San Diego.
“[I'm] great, happy. Much happier to see trees again, talk with people, play with dogs.”
He’s now preparing for another trip; one on solid ground.
“I’m going to go hike the Continental Divide Trail," Napoleone said with a smile. "A big, long, 3,000-mile journey.”