In Seafarer Awareness Week – 6 to 11 July 2020 - Philip Eastell, Founder of Container Shipping Supporting Seafarers, calls for leadership, arguing that the glacial pace of change set by the authorities is costing seafarers their lives. Notwithstanding, the announcement following the IMO meeting in the UK on 9 July, many seafarers remain stranded, isolated and in distress.
The lack of prompt action by world governments, International shipping organisations and parts of the maritime sector, has seen a deep crisis develop in our global seafaring community not seen since World War II.
The impact of covid-19 on in the world’s merchant fleet has caused a humanitarian crisis with seafarers being unable to complete their crew changes or be repatriated to their home countries.
The situation has gradually worsened over recent weeks with upwards of 400,000 seafarers directly affected, either waiting to move to their next ship or return home, as well as all the seafarers waiting to join their new ships after shore leave or those starting new positions.
This situation would never be allowed to happen in any other industry, and we must question why there has been so little action taken, and so late. Clearly there is still so much to be done and despite huge efforts by organisations such as the IMO and the ITF, we still see the current situation deteriorating rather than improving. Much more needs to be done and quickly. Seafarers are the backbone of our global shipping industry, keeping trade lanes and supply chains going, delivering the goods we expect to see in the shops.
Seafarers, need and deserve far more support and respect from our global community and hopefully as a result of this crisis, the way the world sees and thinks about seafarers will change for the good.
Meantime though, the hundreds of thousands of seafarers caught up and trapped in ports around the world, on board ships that they have most likely spent much longer than the typical nine months of their contracts on, are faced with even longer time on board, in many cases more than a year. Seafarers need help and assistance more than ever before - but where will this help come from?
Well, collectively from Maritime Charities – and the dedication and ongoing support from their port chaplains and ship visitors. The main maritime charities with a global presence include Stella Maris (Apostleship of the Sea), The Mission to Seafarers and the Sailors Society, who between them have approximately 1,000 chaplains and volunteers, making up this army of ship visitors. In addition, we have ISWAN – The International Seafarers Welfare and Assistance Network who, offer a 24/7 Help Line in seven languages for seafarers to talk to someone about their problems or need help.
Apostleship of the Sea who celebrate their Centenary from October this year, and who will be known as Stella Maris going forward, have the largest support network of Port Chaplains and Ship Visitors internationally covering some 300 ports around the world and in recent years reaching more than 1 million seafarers annually.
Typically, as with the other maritime charities, Apostleship of the Sea port Chaplains can offer a listening ear, faith or emotional support, practical assistance, but mostly just being a trusted friend.
Seafarers needs vary, but most will always welcome the opportunity to meet a ship visitor who they can sit down and talk to, have a chat, socialise, something we land lovers can do whenever we want to and we all take for granted. Sadly, for seafarers they must wait for their next port of call, and only if time permits and a port chaplain or ship visitor is available, can they look forward to that human contact and satisfy the need to meet another person.
In normal circumstances seafarers could ask to be taken in the charities’ minibus to a local shopping centre, to buy those essential items that again those of us living on land can do so easily and take for granted. What we consider a freedom or do without thinking, a seafarer has to wait until their ship will spend enough time in port for them to apply for shore leave and allow them the time they need to go shopping or visit the seafarers centre.
With Covid-19, a seafarers’ options to visit shore are now extremely limited and they are relying on the port chaplains and ship visitors to deliver a box to them at the bottom of the gangplank for them to collect. The box may contain simple items like deodorant, toothpaste, or even a bar of chocolate as a treat. And for those of you asking why seafarers need to buy these items, it is because shipowners only typically supply Soap and Toilet Paper as free issue to crew!
A more emotive and personal area where port chaplains provide support is the supply of sim cards so that seafarers can contact their families at home, something which in these current times is even more important than ever. A call home can really save the day for many seafarers who have been away from home far longer than they anticipated, and of course now also faced with an even longer and extended time on board. This just adds to the stresses and strains of being a seafarer in todays’ world.
In the current circumstances, with so many Covid-19 restrictions in place in ports around the world, and with so many seafarer centres that are currently closed, other means of contact with port chaplains, such as using technology may be the only option to make contact.
The Mission to Seafarers have implemented their Digital Chaplaincy service for seafarers who want to make contact and talk to someone ashore. This is of course the next best thing to meeting a port chaplain face to face.
Whilst Chaplains provide help where they can, they cannot always visit every seafarer in port who needs help or assistance.
Another extremely valuable service that seafarers can access is the ISWAN Seafarer Help line, that is manned 24 hours a day, seven days a week , with trained staff ready to help seafarers in distress requiring guidance or if necessary can provide immediate financial support with their Emergency Fund. They have a multilingual team speaking all the major languages spoken by most crews around the world, including Chinese, Filipino, Arabic, Spanish, Hindi, Russian and English.
Likewise, the Sailors Society also has chaplains around the world based in most of the major ports, and they too offer a service to both seafarers and their families. The Sailors Society is over 200 years old and is extremely experienced in providing seafarer welfare services to both seafarers and their families. They have in place their virtual chaplaincy which, like the Apostleship of the Sea and Mission to Seafarers, allows crew to contact and reach a chaplain without needing to go ashore. The Sailors Society also have their Emergency Covid-19 helpline.
In some ways it is sad that in today’s world, the work of the maritime charities is even more important than ever before and one wonders what the situation would be for seafarers in the current Covid-19 crisis, if it was not for the maritime charities lobbying maritime organisations and official government offices. The current Covid-19 crisis has raised the profile of the seafarers in the worlds’ media and press but not necessarily for all the right reasons.
The work of the maritime charities cannot be underestimated or indeed undervalued. It is without doubt that we should all extend our sincere thanks to all the maritime charities who have offered their help and support over many decades to seafarers in ports all over the world.
Of course, the work of the maritime charities and all the support they provide for seafarers comes at a cost, which is only possible if they can maintain or even increase their income and allow them to continue to provide all their essential services.
I would urge anyone to consider donating to them to ensure they can all carry on providing their essential work for many more decades to come, delivering their services supporting our seafarers in so many ways.
A Huge thankyou from us all to the Maritime Charities and their port chaplains and ship visitors, for their ongoing unconditional support that they give every day to seafarers all around the world!