Islander chronicles experience in Shanghai shipyard

Madeleine Wolczko has documented her experiences in the web series “Restricted to Ship.”

Vashon native Madeleine Wolczko has been located off a very different island for the last several months.

Wolczko, a 28-year-old merchant mariner, has been “restricted to ship” by the Chinese government along with the rest of the crew of the President Wilson off the shore of Changxing Island, where the Shanghai Changxing Shipyard is located.

The crew has been in Shanghai since Feb. 21, and in lockdown since March 23. They are uncertain about when they will be able to leave.

Shanghai, a Chinese city of more than 26 million people, was locked down in late March to control a COVID-19 outbreak. According to reports from The Washington Post, the streets of the city are empty, with only healthcare workers, delivery drivers and volunteers permitted to move freely. Food shortages have become a problem in the city.

Videos from Shanghai depict drones flying over the city, conveying such messages as:

“Please comply with COVID restrictions. Control your soul’s desire for freedom. Do not open the window or sing.”

In the midst of lockdowns and restrictions in Shanghai, Wolczko, a second mate aboard the President Wilson, began to chronicle her experiences in the shipyard through her web series titled “Restricted to Ship.”

“The title ‘Restricted to Ship’ is kind of an open-ended title in a way, because we’re been restricted to ship [on] every hitch since 2020,” said Wolczko in a video call. “This is actually a term that was pandemic-coined by these companies…that’s just a term that’s very common in the industry, and I wanted to highlight [that].”

Originally, Wolczko had planned to release a trilogy of “Restricted to Ship” videos, with the first chronicling Shanghai in lockdown, Shanghai back at work and the ship’s departure.

However, as the crew’s time in the shipyard continues, Wolczko plans to continue additional episodes of the series. So far, she has released two episodes on her YouTube and Instagram page, the first titled “Shanghai Lockdown” and the second titled “Ghosted in Shanghai.”

According to Wolczko, the last 40 days have been slow at the shipyard.

Recently, said Wolczko, 20 shipyard workers were brought on to their ship to begin repairs to the vessel. These workers included safety officers and workers to prepare for steel and engine work.

“We had not seen any movement at all on us since March, so we’re very excited about that,” said Wolczko.

However, even with the arrival of the shipyard workers, there is still a huge amount of work that must be done on the vessel.

On a container ship the size of the President Wilson, nearly 500 people are usually working to get the ship ready for departure. It also takes about six weeks to prepare the ship with that amount of people working on the vessel, said Wolczko.

“It’s great that they’re back, it’s great that there’s a little bit of progress being made…but how long is this really going to take?” said Wolczko.

The ship that Wolczko is currently aboard needs repairs — for instance, the ship has lots of holes everywhere, which leads to flooding issues.

“There was a lot of steelwork started and then left open when they were told ‘lockdown time,” she said. “They left a lot of things open, and when it rains, it rains really hard and there’s nothing we can do to prevent it from coming inside the vessel.”

The crew was able to find submersible pumps along with fire hoses and was able to pump out the cargo hold of the ship after experiencing rain — a long process that Wolczko documented in her series.

Water also leaks into the engine room when it rains, where it becomes extremely dirty and can only be disposed of via a sludge barge, said Wolczko. However, accessing a sludge barge at the moment is challenging.

“It puts us in a lot of difficult legal situations environmentally speaking, because we’re trying to do the best thing and make sure we’re not contributing to a worse environment here than it already is,” said Wolczko.

Wolczko, who is a graduate of the California Maritime Academy and has been a merchant mariner for more than seven years, said that the work needed on the President Wilson is the most intense she’d ever seen.

“It’s just torn apart,” she added.

However, Wolczko considers herself “lucky” to have the specific crew members aboard the President Wilson. Crew members hail from all over the United States, from Massachusetts, California, Nevada and more.

The “Restricted to Ship” videos capture moments with the crew such as an on-deck haircut for a crew member, the crew having a karaoke night singing Queen’s “We Are the Champions,” and retrieving food deliveries delivered by the Chinese government from the deck of the ship.

“I think there’s a lot of dark humor on board…everyone’s kind of sarcastic, ‘here we go again,’ and it really does bring people together to be on that same level,” she said.

While Wolczko doesn’t know when she will come home, she said uncertainty on departure dates is normal in many shipyards.

Neither the company Wolczko works for nor the Chinese government have communicated any information about when the crew will be able to leave Shanghai.

While Wolczko remains at the Shanghai Changxing Shipyard, she hopes her experience helps to illustrate what seafarers go through.

“This situation is weird for Americans, U.S. merchant mariners, [but] internationally it’s something that happens, especially since the pandemic,” said Wolczko. “…There are seafarers who, their companies go bankrupt and they just get stranded…they are required to remain with the vessel based on the law of whatever state the ship happens to be in at the time.”

In these cases, said Wolczko, the seafarers are dependent on people onshore to notice them and bring supplies to them, as they are left without pay, food and water.

Wolczko added that the U.S. merchant marine fleet has been on the decline, with fewer shipyards in the United States and a small commercial fleet. However, the United States receives a large number of imports, and more than 90% of the world’s resources are transported by ship.

“In the United States, you just don’t hear about the merchant marines,” said Wolczko. “When you show people behind professions, that gets people interested as well, and there’s a human element.”