How 25 pairs of shoes make a difference to the crew change crisis

SeafarersCrew-changeMental health

Some things have improved but there is a very long way to go before the crew change crisis is solved. The situation makes seafarer charities’ work crucial for the well-being of seafarers.

I was recently on a call to one of our Chaplains at the front line. A ship had contacted him from sea, urgently requesting this footwear to be available on their arrival in port. Together with a volunteer he had managed to source all the right sizes, the vessel was about to berth, and he was about to deliver. What do 25 pairs of shoes tell us about these last extraordinary months?

Many vaccine questions remain unanswered

Vaccines are a cause for real hope, but hourly news stories remind us that many hard days still lie ahead. In fact, as we know from news coming in from the front line, seafarers have vaccines very much on their mind. When will they be available? How will they access them? If they cannot access, will they lose their jobs or be unable to find new contracts? Which type will they be offered? If it requires a second dose how will they get that? What are the side effects? Will only some types of vaccine guarantee access to shore leave? These are urgent questions which crew are anxiously asking, and the industry is working hard to address. In the meantime, there seems to be no imminent quick and clean ending to the difficulties that began all that time ago.

Yes, it is something over a year now since the dramatic scale of the pandemic was becoming clear to us all. We were experiencing the early days of lockdown. We were learning to know what it meant to be cut off from normal contact with family and friends (and in doing so we were getting our own small but somewhat bitter taste of what is regular life for seafarers). For some, the virus had already come painfully, or even tragically, close to home. The implications for crew and their families looked grim. At The Mission to Seafarers we were working out exactly what all this meant for us.

Seafarers and their families are struggling

As readers of this article will be well aware, for seafarers, and their families, things remain extremely challenging. These heroic men and women have kept vital world trade moving despite everything they faced. At the peak it is believed that the crew change crisis left around 450,000 seafarers working beyond their contract ends, often way beyond. Similar numbers were unable to start their contracts, leaving them in challenging financial and family circumstances. Large numbers of crew from the cruise sector found themselves suddenly out of work. For those on board there was debilitating uncertainty, often exhaustion and great anxiety about family back home. Stress levels were very high. One seafarer told us “there is no tomorrow and without a tomorrow there is no hope.” One of our chaplains spoke of a “mental health epidemic amongst seafarers, paralleling the pandemic”.

Some things have improved – thanks to a phenomenal effort of partnership across the shipping industry – but there is a very long way to go. The crew change issue is far from finally resolved. Many governments continue with their shaming failure to recognise seafarers as essential workers. Fear of virus variants risks putting progress into reverse. We understand that around 200,000 are still working beyond contract end. Shore leave for seafarers in port remains very difficult, sometimes prevented by Captain or company but often avoided by seafarers because of worries about their own safety. Having no break from the ship creates further pressures, especially if no WiFi is available on board, making communication with family almost impossible. The needs of crew, and families at home, remain acute.

How seafarer charities make a difference

I am deeply proud of the response of Mission teams around the world, working in very difficult and restricting circumstances. At a time when we have rarely been more needed, we have sustained our work in every way and in every place possible. While many of our centres and transport services have had to close for long periods of time, ship visiting has continued, suitably “distanced” and at the gangway. Personal shopping delivery has been hugely important for seafarers unable to reach shops in the normal way. Sim cards, chocolate, crisps, replacement clothing and so much more – not forgetting the 25 pairs of shoes! These things may seem small, but they are so vitally important for the well-being of seafarers. This has been complex and demanding for local teams – but transformational. The delivery of medicine has been of critical importance, especially for those whose prescriptions had run out because of extended contracts. Delivering MiFi units to facilitate the communication with home of those without access to WiFi has been another vital service. Yes, face to face work, albeit at a distance and with all the necessary personal protective equipment in place, has remained at the heart of our support to seafarers.

Beyond that, our digital services have been incredibly important, particularly our new Chat to a Chaplain facility, launched early in the pandemic. This has fielded thousands of calls and, quite apart from offering friendship, has provided practical solutions or “signposting” in relation to many serious problems. This is amongst a number of ways in which we have taken our digital work forward, ensuring that we can reach out to seafarers with whom any kind of face-to-face contact has been impossible.

Finally, we must not forget the needs of families at home. Our Family Support teams in the Philippines and in India have being working very hard in their support. There has been pastoral intervention, digital events and support for families (even singing workshops for children) – and Covid-safe transport in support of seafarer repatriation. In addition, many families, over 1000 in India alone, have received emergency support packages.

Continued emergency support is needed

Our supporters have been nothing short of incredible. At a time when we needed even more resource than usual to meet the challenge of the times, many of our normal funding streams came under severe pressure. However, thanks to the amazing efforts of our development team and the unbelievable generosity of so many, particularly within shipping, we have been able to sustain our work and respond to exceptional need. Our most profound thanks go to you all.

However, the challenges are far from over. Additional support continues to be needed for emergency support and intervention, quite apart from the regular income we require as we emerge from the current problems to more normal times. We also continue to grow our exciting programme of new project which is making such an impact. We continue to invite and welcome new partners as we work together to support these incredible men and women, who keep world trade moving and on whom we are all so extraordinarily dependent.

The Mission to Seafarers recently signed the Neptune Declaration on Seafarer Wellbeing and Crew Change and the Mental Health in Maritime Pledge.