Shopping, SIM cards and the ‘new normal’ for seafarers
What is the true experience for seafarers working onboard ship today? We know the stats and we think we understand the challenges. Very often the stories we see are accompanied by pictures of men and women with their thumbs up and smiles on their faces.
To work for welfare organisation Mission to Seafarers is to seek them out; in ports, docks and terminals where their ships are moored. For the Mission chaplains who can get aboard ship, the job is to listen and to offer help.
Mark Lawson-Jones, Mission Chaplain and Ship Visitor in the Greater Cardiff area, describes it as a privilege to be able to share some of their stories and understand how life is for them. He recently wrote an article about his recent experiences and what they mean for the future.
For deep sea, ocean-going seafarers, journeys across vast oceans watching day turn to night and seasons change too, seems to stay with them for a lifetime, he says. “You can’t be that isolated, hundreds or maybe even a thousand miles from shore, and not appreciate the beauty around you: the night sky, and the splendour of dawn and dusk as another day begins or ends.”
But for every seafarer enjoying seeing the world for the first time, there is a seafarer who is struggling in some way with the grief of missing family, not being present for family events, and feeling as if their purpose in life is to be set-apart or distant from the people, things, and places they love.
They are also aware of the effect on family at home, waiting for news and relying on them for an income. The chaplain’s job, he says, is to listen and learn.
Lawson-Jones says the words of one seafarer still resonate. When he asked how difficult it was to leave his family for another long contract, they replied “It’s like I have another life. As soon as I am out of view, as the taxi takes me away, it is as if my life has switched, and I am in my other life. I try not to think about home too much, it’s just too upsetting.”
The Mission to Seafarers port centres try to provide a ‘home-from-home’ where mariners can contact families and spend some time with their feet on solid ground. Its ship visitors also work onboard vessels, spending time and providing information, dealing with the things that are important, trying to make small differences.
This already strict regimen was stretched to breaking point during the Pandemic. Seemingly seconds after the first lockdown was announced, protocols and policies, agreements and supporting documents were created, as Mission chaplains struggled to maintain services.
Meanwhile, the nine-month contracts for many seafarers turned into open-ended trips, with no sight of a crew change or a date to return home. Families were in turmoil as the world became a very different place. “Lockdowns left so many with their own thoughts and worries and many had nowhere to turn. Life was challenging beyond imagining for some,” he says.
During this time, the Mission created initiatives to meet the challenges head-on, whilst continuing to visit ships in many ports, offering one-to-one support. With shore-leave cancelled, visits took place in full PPE at the top of the gangway, with no chats over coffee in the mess.
The Mission to Seafarers knows the smallest kindness can change the lives of those who are a long way from home and loved ones. During COVID, ship visitors shopped for food, brought supplies, toiletries and clothes and helped maintain contact with home, with modems and SIM cards, laptops and tablets. When funds allowed, chaplains brought more gifts and treats – and continue to do so.
Together with material support, the Mission does everything it can to make seafarers aware of how to get in contact when support is needed, for information about mental health at sea and local contact details for staff, so no seafarer needs to suffer alone.
Speaking to seafarers has given Lawson-Jones a perspective on the industry’s ‘new normal’ where shore leave is often forbidden and working hours seem to have increased aboard, sometimes without overtime pay.
“Each day is different, but also brings the knowledge that the Mission’s work is making lives better, the lives of those who serve us so well,” he says.
“Tomorrow will bring more ships to the ports we serve and chaplains, ship visitors and centre staff will work to make a difference, in a thousand ways in hundreds of ports, for tens of thousands of seafarers and their families.”
The Mission’s contact details for seafarers can be found at www.missiontoseafarers.org/help-where-can-i-get-help