How the Seafarers’ Mission Function

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Amidst the raging pandemic and the excruciating trapped feeling inside ships without crew changes, seafarers are at a dire state looking for a safe heaven and here’s how to get one as underlined by a report published in Zululand Observer.

Richard Bay, the safe heaven

Richards Bay is a busy port where the cargoes of hundreds of ships from international destinations are handled each month – and along with that are thousands of crew members who need to spend some time on dry land after weeks on board their respective vessels.

Situated near the port’s west gate, the Richards Bay Combined Seafarers Club serves as a safe shore haven for seafarers to unwind, purchase basic necessities and receive often much needed counselling.

The Seafarers Mission is a comfortable and friendly centre that provides seafarers with a ‘home away from home’. Amenities at the centre include a chapel, small shop, lounge area, games room, pub, library, internet and wi-fi.

Established in the 1970s, the Richards Bay Combined Seafarers Club mission has been catering to the practical, social and spiritual needs of sailors for more than 40 years.

It forms part of a global organisation which offers help and hope to seafarers in 260 ports and 71 countries.

How it helps seafarers?

  • Based at each station is a chaplain, who provides spiritual and emotional support to visiting seafarers, and at the Richards Bay station, Mark Classen is the go-to person.
  • Chaplains normally (before the Covid-19 pandemic) visit crew members on board, as well as at the Richards Bay Combined Seafarers Club mission, where they offer seafarers a sympathetic ear, prayer and counselling.
  • All chaplains are trained to offer trauma counselling following incidents such as shipwrecks and piracy. In normal times, seafarers are faced with trials and tribulations such as loneliness and isolation.

Sailors often spend months at sea, with very limited contact with their loved ones at home. Life on board is often dismal. They earn minimum wages for doing physically demanding labour.

Conditions are dangerous and injuries are commonplace. Because of their restrictive environment, bullying is rife and when there is conflict between crew members, there really is no place to hide.

It is here where the Mission to Seafarers plays an important role in providing counselling and practical assistance to struggling seafarers.

COVID19 operational hurdles

According to Mark Classen, chaplain at the Richards Bay Combined Seafarers Club mission, following the onset of the global pandemic, they initially resorted to what they call ‘digital chaplaincy’ in order to stay in touch with crews via social media platforms.

‘One very significant and new initiative is through an online counselling platform called ‘Chat to a Chaplain’, where seafarers and/or their families who need information, help, or a comforting ear, can be advised by one of our trained chaplains worldwide,’ Classen says.

‘Chaplains in South African were initially not allowed to meet seafarers on board, but that regulation was lifted in June, so we have been able to visit them in the port – with full PPE and social distancing in place.

‘One additional way in which the Mission to Seafarers has changed is that we need to ensure that every item that we hand to them is wrapped in sanitised plastic. Therefore we have incurred additional expenses, as with all other organisations, with respect to PPE, sanitisation and other health measures.’

Depression and isolation rife among seafarers

Seafarers normally work in difficult circumstances, and the coronavirus pandemic has only worsened their fate. According to Classen, seafarers’ emotional needs have changed drastically in the past few months. ‘Crews are not allowed any shore leave here in South Africa and in many other places around the world,’ he explains.

‘Many crews have also been working long past their contractual period. For instance, the usual nine-month contract is now running at 14 months, with no news yet of repatriation. So, they feel many times as though they are trapped and ‘in prison’.

‘They need to place their feet on terra firma; they need to be allowed to come to the Seafarers centre (their home away from home) and they need to interact with people other than their fellow crew mates.

Needs local support

‘They want to be able to purchase items for themselves, or gifts for their families back home. ‘Owing to the above reasons, many seafarers are currently suffering from depression and isolation. ‘There have been reports of suicides, attempted suicides and severe mental issues. Seafarers have gone missing, crew are suffering with injuries and many are feeling that nobody is listening to their pleas.’ An important way to help such seafarers is to get them in touch with their loved ones back home.

‘They need to contact their families, but things like legally registered sim cards and airtime are not always available – or affordable – on the vessels,’ says Classen. ‘They rely on the locals to supply them with this necessity. Their emotional wellbeing depends on this fact, because they want to and need to speak to their loved ones back home.’

Hundreds not able to join work

Another significant concern is the hundreds of thousands of seafarers who have been sitting at home waiting for a contract in order to earn some money to feed their starving families.

‘Unfortunately with the restrictions placed on travel, and with the necessity of quarantine, it has not been possible for seafarers to join vessels. There is a great need out there for many seafarers wanting a contract,’ Classen says. Classen concludes by saying:

Welfare organisations, like The Mission to Seafarers and many others, have been collaborating with one another to raise these serious issues with governments around the world, in order to relax the restrictions specifically for seafarers.

‘There has been some wonderful progress made in a few countries, but there is still a lot that needs to be done.

‘I wish to thank the organisations, companies and governments who have been lobbying for seafarers’ rights, and who have made it possible for them to go home.’

What the NSRI is to the physical safety and rescue of ships, boats and their crews, the Mission to Seafarers offers the spiritual equivalent. There are more than 100 000 ships plying the earth’s waters, collectively manned by well over 1.5-million seafarers (only 2% of them being women). Some 90% of the world’s trade moves via ships.

And while continued efforts are being made in terms of ship safety and navigational aids, the ocean remains the most inhospitable terrain on the planet, with more than 2 000 seafarers still dying every year from various causes.

But it’s not only the hidden reefs on the ocean beds below the ship that pose the greatest problems to seafarers, nor is it the condition of the vessel itself, nor the pirates who might intercept it.

Our weakest link

While shipping is one of the world’s most dangerous occupations, as with most other of life’s challenges, it is the human being that is the most critical – and potentially the weakest – link in the chain.

People at sea are extremely vulnerable, and the top perils of life at sea include:

  1. Loneliness and depression are major factors in a seafarer’s life on board. Homesickness is a chronic condition. An estimated two-thirds of ship crews have no means of communication while on the open sea, and only one in ten will have freely available internet. There is very little contact with their families – be it a wife, elderly parents or ill family members – and some have yet to meet their newborn children.
  2. The elements. While travelling across vast expanses of ocean to strange shores, they face gales, hurricanes, extreme heat, cold, wind and rain. If the ship should suffer serious mechanical failure at sea, it is at the mercy of the ocean and in a fight the sea usually wins. And when it’s not the terror of the storm, it is the long monotony and tedium of the calm ocean, with no land or human habitat in sight.
  3. Mental stress is a serious issue. It is physically, mentally and spiritually demanding to be confined on a vessel for months on end. Life on board ship has been described ‘a prison…but it’s a prison that pays’.
    Often, seamen live in cramped accommodation, with poor food and little off-duty time.
  4. Hard and dangerous work. The life of a seafarer is completely dominated by hard work involving cargo, heavy machinery and great heights. The physically demanding tasks could lead to falls, back injuries, crushed fingers, broken bones, eye injuries, cuts and more. Added to hazards such as noxious fumes from cargo are the everyday illnesses such as appendicitis – with proper medical help perhaps hundreds of miles away.
  5. Personal conflict. Given the close confines, inevitably friction between crew members will occur, especially as there may be language and cultural divides to exacerbate the problem. Bullying is also commonplace – and there is nowhere to go for the victim.

Mission to seafarers role

Step in the Mission to Seafarers Given these hardships, and more, one can understand that seafarers often need help to cope with the strains of their occupation. That’s when the Seafarers Mission comes into the picture.

Whether it is seamen who visit the Mission, or Mission Chaplains to go on board ships, the Christian hand of friendship is extended to all, irrespective of nationality or creed – without expecting anything in return, other than the knowledge one has helped a fellow human being.

Believers have always looked for ways to express their faith in a practical way and through ‘mission work’ that suits their personality and vision.

This makes the Seafarers Mission an ideal outlet for volunteers, whose efforts provide welcome support for the chaplains who deal directly with the visiting seafarers and their spiritual and other problems.

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Source: Zululand Observer

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