Annie Dundon vaccinates crew members aboard Sunisa Naree on May 20. (Photo Courtesy Skip Strong)
Annie Dundon vaccinates crew members aboard Sunisa Naree on May 20. (Photo Courtesy Skip Strong)
When Maine removed the residency requirement for COVID-19 vaccination last month, Skip Strong of the Penobscot Bay and River Pilots Association immediately thought of the crews aboard cargo ships and tankers.

“Just by chance, we had a bunch of ships coming into Searsport,” he said, “and I was thinking, you know, let’s try to do something for these guys that have generally been stuck on ships and screwed over since the start of this pandemic.”

Like everything else in the past year, the relationship between the pilots, who navigate commercial ships in and out of local ports, and the international crews aboard them has been complicated. Local restrictions at ports around the world put an end to shore leave and often kept crews in a de facto quarantine for months at a time. At the same time, the close confines of the ship left them vulnerable to outside infection.

“They were more concerned about us, the pilots, coming on board and bringing something on,” Strong said.

In Maine, pilots weren’t vaccinated early as essential workers, but they were expected to work, which meant taking great care, Strong said — windows open, masks on, surfaces wiped down, no handshaking, no signing paperwork.

When the vaccine eligibility was opened to anyone, Strong talked to several state agencies in an attempt to get the mobile vaccination lab or another provision for visiting crews. When nothing came of it, his wife, Annie Dundon, a physician assistant at the Community Health Center in Southwest Harbor, offered to approach Mount Desert Island Hospital. The hospital released 70 doses of Johnson and Johnson vaccine, “which is the perfect one for the sailors,” Strong said. “Because they’re one and done.”

Since then, Strong has coordinated with the shipping companies and crews in advance of their arrival to find out how many sailors want the vaccine. Dundon has worked on a volunteer basis around her regular work schedule to give the shots.

On May 20, she vaccinated 23 Thai sailors aboard Sunisa Naree, a bulk carrier with a load of petcoke from Cartagena, Colombia.

“It took us about two hours from start to finish,” Strong said, “and they were ecstatic, I mean, these guys were so happy to get that.”

Two days later, a cargo ship arrived from Turkey with windmill blades and less-than-perfect vaccine attendance — nine of 17 got the shot. Sailors aboard a ship carrying wood pulp were found to have already been vaccinated during a port call in Albany, N.Y., where a similar initiative was in place. Dundon vaccinated all 19 sailors on a ship that traveled from Japan with a load of iron oxide.

The couple are hoping to get some help from someone who can administer vaccines and, in a small way, keep the flow of global commerce moving.

“Ninety percent of what most people consume comes on a ship,” Strong said, “and we need to keep those guys healthy.”